ST. LOUIS — Carlos Martinez’s first start in the majors didn’t quite measure up to the debut starts made by other Cardinals rookies this season. He failed to last five innings while giving up four runs and taking the loss in the Dodgers’ 5-1 victory at Busch Stadium.
But the 21-year-old right-hander accomplished something that his fellow rookies didn’t. Martinez, in fact, might have managed a first for any Cardinals starter when he threw a fastball timed at 100 mph in the first inning.
If another Cardinals pitcher has touched triple digits in a start, it was many years ago and has eluded the memory of three knowledgeable press box wags who have followed the Cardinals for a long time.
Martinez actually threw two pitches that reached 100. The first was fouled off by cleanup hitter Yasiel Puig who, two pitches later, reached on a slow roller to third. In the second, Dee Gordon dribbled a 100-mph four-seamer back to the mound and also ended up with an infield single.
In addition to the triple-digit heaters, Martinez regularly registered from 96-98 mph with his four-seamer, and his two-seamer even touched 96 mph. He did not appear to have to reach back very far to find such velocity, either. Even though he needed to throw more than 20 pitches in four of his five innings, it was pretty easy to see why he is regarded as one of the game’s top pitching prospects.
“Stuff’s electric, there’s no question about that,” manager Mike Matheny said.
Martinez came within one out of enjoying a far better outcome. But with two out and two on in the fifth, he served a 3-1 fastball to A.J. Ellis that the Dodgers’ catcher deposited into the left-field bullpen to break a 1-1 tie.
The homer proved to be the difference in the game and the pitch proved to be Martinez’s last of the night. Before facing another batter, he exited with what the club said was cramping in his right hand — a result of not being properly hydrated. He was on his way out anyway, though, as he was just two pitches shy of 100.
The cramping started with the second batter of the inning, Martinez said, and it showed in his velocity. After barely dipping below 95 mph to that point, his fastball dropped to 93 on three pitches to Ellis, including the one he hit for a homer.
With Jon Jay serving as his translator, Martinez did not say the home run pitch was a result of his hand cramping. He didn’t say it wasn’t a product, either. “He just gave it all he had,” Jay said, speaking for Martinez. “Just tried to go with whatever he had.”
Martinez said his hand felt much better after the game. For the night, he gave up seven hits — three didn’t leave the infield — and walked three while striking out two. Though he started 15 of the 24 batters he faced with a strike, Martinez still ran into deep counts in every inning except the fourth, when he retired the side on five pitches.
“Overall, he did a pretty nice job,” Matheny said. “He got into a spot where he just about got out of it, then was hurt with the long ball. We talk about the efficiency with the young pitchers. We have another strikeout guy so you’re not going to be too efficient at this point. It’s something they learn along the road.”
Just getting to Busch Stadium did not make his debut any easier. Martinez flew to Reno on Wednesday with Memphis, only to find out around 10 p.m. that he was being called up to make his first start the next day. Along with just-promoted lefty reliever Sam Freeman, Martinez caught a morning flight out of Nevada and landed in St. Louis sometime before 2 p.m.
According to Jay, Martinez said he was trying to throw first-pitch strikes and induce grounders with his sinker. He said he was pleased that he was able to get six ground-ball outs.
During two previous call-ups this season Martinez worked out of the bullpen, but there never has been a doubt where is his future. He even spent some of his earlier time in St. Louis lobbying Matheny for the chance to start.
“He was excited to get out there. He’s been wanting to start. He’s been asking me for a long time,” Matheny said.
Matheny said Martinez once brought up the topic when the manager was making his rounds chatting up players during batting practice.
“I’ve been working on his English. He’s been working on my Spanish,” Matheny said. “That was one of the conversations we had one day. He was asking me what he needed to do to improve to where he could start for this team someday.”
Matheny didn’t share his reply. “It was in Spanish,” he said.
Martinez isn’t likely to start for the Cardinals again anytime soon. This opportunity came along only after Shelby Miller left Wednesday night’s game when he was hit by a line drive on the right elbow. Miller, however, is not expected to go on the disabled list and he might not even miss a turn.
But Martinez need not worry about making another start. You throw a 100-mph fastball, you will get plenty of chances. You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter at @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.