FOR ALL TO BEHOLD : Northridge's Fili Martinez Hopes to Set a Shining Example by Playing Professional Baseball and Earning a College Degree

Times Staff Writer

Filiberto Joe Martinez III.

OK, the name does not conjure images of, say, Orel Leonard Hershiser IV. But regal-sounding monikers do not a pitcher make.

So call him Fili--the same name favored by his grandfather and father.

"I really don't like the name Filiberto too much," says Martinez, who grew up in Highland Park. "But, you know, I'll probably name my son the same thing. Hey, I like tradition."

Martinez, 22, is on the verge of establishing what he hopes will one day become another very personal tradition.

As a senior left-hander for the Cal State Northridge baseball team, Martinez is two semesters away from completing a degree in political science and becoming the first member of his extended family to graduate from a university.

And in a little more than month, he will be selected in the major league draft to become one of the first Franklin High alumni to play professional baseball after completing four years of college.

"In high school, there were a lot of guys ahead of me who had some talent and I thought they were going to be able to do something baseball-wise," Martinez said. "But they were really into partying and girls and their cars and nobody ever did anything.

"I really wanted to become one of the first players to come out and set an example for the guys coming up behind me."

This season, Martinez has been an example of consistency for Northridge (23-15-1 overall through Thursday), which is in contention for the California Collegiate Athletic Assn. championship under first-year Coach Bill Kernen.

After three fairly nondescript years with the Matadors, Martinez, 6-foot-2 and 175 pounds, has emerged as one of the top left-handers in Southern California, registering impressive wins over USC and Fresno State, both of which were ranked among the nation's top 15 Division I teams when they played Northridge.

Martinez's 5-4 record is misleading, the result of pitching against the Matadors' toughest opponents in games that featured either offensive of defensive breakdowns at critical junctures. His sterling 2.11 earned-run average through 94 innings is a truer indication of how well he has performed and why the bleachers have been full of scouts every time he starts.

"His stuff hasn't changed that much," Northridge catcher Rusty McLain said. "But his attitude has."

Martinez entered the season with a career record of 6-3 and a career ERA of 5.01. He is throwing the same fastball, curve, slider and changeup, but unabashedly credits Kernen for making him tougher.

"Last year, I'd get into situations where I didn't know what to throw," said Martinez, who was 5-3 with a 5.40 ERA but was selected to the first-team All-CCAA squad nonetheless. "He's (Kernen) given me the confidence to throw the breaking ball in any count and made me believe that I can beat anybody.

"I've learned so much more this year than the previous three, I really wish I had played for him for four years. It would have been interesting to see just what kind of pitcher I would have been."

Martinez was an All-City Section baseball and football player at Franklin, but he arrived at Northridge in 1985 as a no-name walk-on.

"I don't think anybody knew anything about Fili when he got here," said Robert Wheatcroft, a senior pitcher who was part of the same freshman class. "I figured he would be here one year and probably quit."

Martinez pitched 11 innings his freshman year and just 8 2/3 his sophomore season when the Matadors had a staff that featured Jeremy Hernandez, Dan Penner and John LaRosa, all of whom were selected in the 1987 draft.

When Kernen replaced Terry Craven last June, it might have been a turning point in Martinez's career, but the watershed event occurred March 29 against USC, which was ranked ninth in the nation at the time.

That night, as the Academy Awards show unfolded down the street at the Shrine Auditorium, Martinez assumed center stage on the mound at Dedeaux Field and gave a stellar complete-game performance against the Trojans, allowing just five hits and striking out seven as Northridge beat USC, 4-2.

"He pitched ahead in the count and mastered the part of the game that keeps hitters from ever sitting on one pitch," USC Coach Mike Gillespie said. "He forever managed to be inside the skulls of our hitters and kept them from knowing what was coming next.

"We've seen a lot of good pitchers this year and he's as good as there is."

Said McLain: "The USC game really made a difference in Fili. We knew he was good and could always count on him to throw strikes, but in that game he took it another step higher."

Martinez's next start produced a complete-game win over conference-leading Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and that was followed by a six-hit, eight-strikeout performance in the Matadors' 4-2 win over Fresno State in Fresno.

"He wasn't overpowering, but he shaded his fastball by changing speeds," Fresno State Coach Bob Bennett said. "A kid that does that can take an 84-to-85 mile-an-hour fastball and make it look like he's throwing 88.

"I was impressed with his gamesmanship."

Martinez will be on the mound Tuesday night when Northridge travels to UC Riverside for the first of its final eight regular-season games. He is hoping to continue the dominance he has displayed through his past five starts and propel the Matadors into the NCAA Division II playoffs.

Richard Campbell, who has coached baseball at Franklin for 12 years, said Martinez's exploits have already brought winning results.

"I can use Fili as a tool," Campbell said. "I can point to him and tell the kids here, 'This is what can happen to you if you're a good athlete, not a bad kid, and you work hard.' "

That would suit Martinez just fine.

"I want to show people like the kids in my high school that it can be done," Martinez said. "I want to play pro ball and see how good I can become. I want to graduate.

"I want people to remember my name."

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