- The Washington Times - Monday, March 9, 2009

VIERA, Fla. | As he watched his countrymen - some former teammates, all would-be teammates - mob each other after the Netherlands’ World Baseball Classic victory against the Dominican Republic, Shairon Martis permitted himself a brief moment to play the what-if game.

Martis could have been on that field celebrating the stunning 3-2 upset Saturday instead of being in the Nationals‘ clubhouse watching it. He had a no-hitter against Panama in the 2006 tournament, a game stopped in the seventh inning because of the mercy rule. He considered playing this year; on Saturday, he let wishful thinking creep into his mind.

“Watching the game, I had a feeling like I wanted to be there,” Martis said. “But beside that, I want to be here also. It was a hard decision for me to make. Right now, I feel good with the decision I made.”

The decision to spurn the WBC for a full spring in major league camp - rather than return to the tournament that gave him his greatest baseball moment - could pay off. Only 21, Martis is in the middle of the kind of spring that could land him on the Nationals’ roster, most likely as a reliever but possibly as a starter.

A native of Curacao, part of the Netherlands Antilles, Martis pitched two innings against the Mets on Sunday. He struck out two and didn’t allow a baserunner. He has given up one hit in two appearances this spring and hasn’t walked a hitter after issuing 57 in 137 professional innings last year.

There’s still enough time left in camp that Martis’ final destination - major league rotation, major league bullpen or Class AAA Syracuse rotation - is unknown. He probably has a stronger grip on his fate in camp, however, than he would if he were pitching in the WBC.

“For us to be able to see him, I think it’s a lot better because you’re not watching [the WBC], and maybe he pitches but maybe he doesn’t,” pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. “Here, he’s got three more games or whatever. It gives us a better idea because there are open spots to win a job.”

There are more open spots in the bullpen, which is where Martis’ name seems to come up more often. He appeared there in the last game of last season after a rainout in the Nationals’ final home game pushed back the rotation and canceled the final start of his September call-up.

Jordan Zimmermann and Collin Balester are mentioned more often than Martis when St. Claire or manager Manny Acta talk about the battle for the final spots in the rotation. The Nationals likely won’t need a fifth starter until April 20 because of two early off-days, but Acta said the club still sees Martis as a starter long term, even if he doesn’t begin the season as one.

“He’s competing here for one of those starting spots. And if not, at the end of camp we’re going to do what is best for us,” Acta said. “Are we going to be better off with him pitching out of the ‘pen, or are we going to be better off with him continuing to develop as a starter in [Class AAA]? At the end of camp, we’ll have the answer - not only because of him but also whether a few more guys step up in that bullpen.”

From a technical standpoint, Martis hasn’t changed much of what he did last year. If anything, he’s relying more on it.

Last September, he too often made the mistake of pitching to the corners of the plate, which rang up his pitch counts and ended all four of his starts in the sixth inning or sooner. That’s a mistake timid young pitchers often make, St. Claire said, and so far this spring, it’s something Martis hasn’t been doing.

“I think he got a little picky when he got up here. That’s not trusting in his stuff against major league hitters,” St. Claire said. “This spring so far, [he has been] very aggressive and pounding the strike zone. That’s what he needs to do because he’s got good stuff.”

St. Claire said he would prefer to have the rotation set, more or less, with three starts to go in spring training. That would give the Nationals time to line up their pitchers once the top players return from the WBC.

It also would give Martis an idea of where he’s going to end up. But no matter where that is, he’s confident skipping the WBC will be what helps him the most in the long term.

“I’d rather be here,” he said, “than play in the Classic.”

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