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Kid Pitcher Gives Dodgers a Bit of a Flashback in His First Start

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Ramonomania came to the ravine Saturday night. It was there in the air, perceptibly, when the baby-faced baby ace, Ramon Martinez, made his way to the mound, preparing to make his first donation to the Dodger rotation, preparing to slay the evil Giants, and, first and foremost, preparing to fill a void in hearts and diamonds left by Fernando-- you remember, short guy, left-handed, used to be on corn-flakes boxes --Valenzuela.

Another Fernando was just what the Dodgers desperately needed. Tireless worker. Fearless leader. Challenger of National League hitters. Champion of the Spanish-speaking community. Everything Los Angeles ever wanted in a pitcher, and more. If only Martinez could be another him .

To ask so much, though, of Rapid Ramon was to do more than merely heap an extra helping of hospitality on a 20-year-old’s head upon his arrival in the big city. Here it was, mid-August, and what the division-leading Dodgers were requiring of Martinez was that he make his major league debut on a Saturday evening, before 47,649 paying customers, against their longtime rivals, the Giants.

Ramon was ready and willing. He crossed himself religiously at the dugout’s top step, then sprinted to the mound on long, spindly legs. As the rookie pitcher pawed the dirt in front of the rubber, digging himself a ditch, catcher Mike Scioscia found himself surrounded by all four of the evening’s umpires, and you could just hear them asking: “What do you know about this kid? What’s he got?”

He showed them. A fastball cut the plate dead center. Then a curveball wiggled wildly, into the dirt. Stuff, was what he had. The kid had good stuff. Martinez completed his warmups and waited for San Francisco to send up its first victim.

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Brett Butler stepped forward. Martinez made his first pitch a pretty one, a fastball across the outside corner. However anxious he might have felt inside, he certainly looked relaxed and thoroughly big-league on the outside, with his Pascual Perez body and his Bob Gibson leg whip and the 48 on his shirt that the gone but not forgotten Dave Stewart once wore, and the gone but totally forgotten Dennis Powell wore after that.

To business: Butler dug in, running the count to 2 and 2, whereupon he reached out and whapped a line drive to left field. Kirk Gibson came on, and on, and on, and finally snatched it, shoelace high. The Ramon Martinez era was under way, and third baseman Dave Anderson flipped the pitcher the ball, underhanded, as if to say: “Here you go, kid. You throw ‘em, we’ll catch ‘em.”

Too much fuss about a pitcher’s first start? Well, perhaps. Then again, Ramon Martinez does not strike anybody in the Dodger organization as just another pitcher. He is the prime-cut beast of the farm system, more calf than cow, with the impeccable pedigree. He is the blue-ribbon winner of tomorrow, here at the show considerably ahead of schedule.

Another discovery from the apparently bottomless well of baseball talent marked on maps as the Dominican Republic, Martinez is a 6-4 right-hander whose right hand struck out 89 minor-league batters this season in 14 games. A year ago he was hailed by the Florida State League’s managers as the top big-league prospect in the circuit, which gave him certification as the Dodgers’ teen angel.

They did not wish to rush him. The last thing the Dodger decision-makers wanted, or expected, to do this season was press Martinez into action before his time. No sense overmatching his skill and undermining his confidence. They would wait. Let him build slowly. Not pull a David Clyde. Not ask too much too soon. Win the division in 1988 with what they already had, then spring Martinez on the league next spring.

Valenzuela’s visit to the disabled list and Don Sutton’s placement onto the discard pile changed all of Fred Claire’s needs. The Dodger general manager could wait no more. No trade could be swung to supply the needed starting pitcher, so Claire did what he swore not to do. He called up Martinez from Albuquerque. Total Triple-A experience: 10 games.

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Well, Fernando did not exactly kick around the minors as long as DeWayne Buice or Doug Jones or Crash Davis did. He got to the show in a hurry, and handled it OK. Maybe Martinez could do the same.

The Dodgers put him to work Saturday against San Francisco, with both the Giants and Houston Astros threatening to overtake the leaders any weekend now. With any luck, the Dodgers would go right out and get Martinez about 10 quick runs, let him coast for six innings, then let somebody else mop up.

Didn’t work out that way. Through four innings against Mike Krukow, 16 years Martinez’s elder, the Dodgers got but two hits and no runs. Fortunately for them, Ramon looked ravishing in the ravine. He, too, gave the Giants little or nothing through four, pitching two-hit, shutout ball.

It wasn’t a breeze. There was Gibson’s shoestring catch. There was another ball John Shelby caught at the wall. Then there was the fourth inning, when the Giants put a man in scoring position with one out. Martinez struck out Kevin Mitchell with a cold-blooded changeup. He walked Mike Aldrete deliberately, then caught Matt Williams looking with a fastball on the black.

The Giants came back in the fifth inning, looking to rattle the kid. With one out and Bob Brenly on third, Butler dinked a fly to short left field. Brenly tagged, Gibson snagged; the race was on. Gibson’s accuracy was pinpoint. Scioscia positioned himself at the plate in his usual pose, like the RCA Victor dog, smothered Gibson’s throw and held off the intruder with a firm tag.

Martinez, just a babe but old enough to know a thing of beauty when he sees one, ran happily to Scioscia after the play, reached out one of his octopus-like arms and gave the catcher five across the palm. This was major league baseball, and he liked it.

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Alas, there was no happy ending. The Dodgers scraped together a sixth-inning run on a couple of two-out hits, and Martinez, having zipped through 7 innings with a four-hit shutout, left with a tip of the cap. The bullpen, though, offered not enough relief, and Los Angeles lost the kid’s lead.

Until then, it had been Fernando Flashback Time. A short, hefty lefty had given way to a tall, diet-rite righty; otherwise, it sure was a familiar sight. Maybe Martinez will never look so good again, but maybe this will be the start of something big. To be continued.

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