- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 16, 2015

BOSTON — The nervous energy hit Rafael Martin as he stood in the visiting bullpen Wednesday afternoon, waiting for his moment.

Martin had done his stretching and thrown his warm-up pitches, but the game between the Washington Nationals and Boston Red Sox was dragging. So rather than continue throwing, he watched from the bullpen mound as the Nationals took their at-bats in the seventh inning. The nerves grew.

Then, finally, the bullpen door swung open and Martin began his long jog to the mound. It was the seventh-inning stretch at Fenway Park, and more than 33,000 people were singing “Take Me Out to The Ballgame.” Martin reached the mound, picked up the ball and the nervousness disappeared.

“It was a good feeling,” Martin said.

The 30-year-old right-hander had waited a long time for this moment, his major league debut, and it was more special than he could have imagined. Martin pitched two scoreless innings and struck out five consecutive batters, helping seal Washington’s 10-5 victory over the Red Sox.

Martin became the first pitcher since Justin Grimm in 2012 to fan five consecutive batters in his big league debut. His wife watched the performance from the stands, and when he returned to the clubhouse, he had an endless scroll of text messages waiting for him.

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“I can’t even describe it. I have no words,” Martin said. “It’s something. A great feeling.”

The moment was particularly special considering Martin’s journey. After graduating from high school, he spent four years working construction in California. He whimsically tried out for a baseball team in Mexico, made the team, spent three years there and was eventually noticed by Nationals scout Bill Singer. Martin joined the Nationals in 2010, toiling away in the minor leagues for five seasons before finally receiving his shot.

Martin was invited to big league spring training this year and left a positive impression on manager Matt Williams and his staff. The right-hander began the season at Triple-A Syracuse but was called up Tuesday to replace left-hander Xavier Cedeno, who was designated for assignment.

Martin’s go-to pitch is a sweeping slider, but he relied primarily on his fastball Wednesday. Shadows had crept into the infield by the time he entered the game, making it difficult to see the ball. His deceptive delivery and the late movement of the pitch only made it more challenging for opposing hitters.

“Just came in there and filled the strike zone up,” Williams said. “We saw that all spring from him, and that’s important for our bullpen that we have a guy that can do that. It’s been a little rough the last few days with walking guys, hitting guys, that type of stuff. And today he just filled it up. It was great.”

After surrendering a one-out single to Dustin Pedroia in the seventh, Martin struck out Hanley Ramirez, Allen Craig, Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino and Xander Bogaerts in succession. His two scoreless innings set the stage for closer Drew Storen, who pitched a scoreless ninth in a non-save situation.

“To do what [Martin] did today was unbelievable,” said right fielder Bryce Harper, who overlapped with him at Double-A Harrisburg. “His stuff’s dirty, shadows or not. He’s got good stuff. He’s got the slider, the sinker, the cutter, changeup. He throws the kitchen sink. He’s very good out there and he’s fun to watch.”

Though it’s unclear how long Martin will be with the big league club, no amount of uncertainty could detract from his moment Wednesday. As he spoke to reporters, he was handed the ball from his strikeout of Ramirez, with “1st MLK” — first major league strikeout — written in pen between the laces.

“Unbelievable,” Martin said of his debut. “Everything I expected.”

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