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Bronx bleachers to mound: Martinez leads Rangers to 15-4 rout of Yankees

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NEW YORK — Nick Martinez spent about a dozen games in the left-field bleachers at Yankee Stadium from 2009-11, watching with his Fordham friends and hoping to one day make it to the big leagues — as a hitter.

He spent Saturday on the mound of the very same ballpark, winning yet another game for Texas and sending reeling New York to its fifth straight loss and ninth in 10 games.

"I could hear my buddies out there cheering for me," he said after the Rangers routed the Yankees 15-4. "It's almost like a homecoming for me."

Shin-Soo Choo hit a go-ahead single and a three-run homer in a 10-run third inning that chased CC Sabathia from his shortest start in six years.

Shoo and Prince Fielder each had two hits in the third, when Texas sent 14 batters to the plate. Fielder finished with three RBIs and hit his third homer in a two games.

Martinez (4-0) is one of the season's surprises: He is third in the AL with a 1.96 ERA and has allowed three earned runs or fewer in 15 consecutive starts since last summer.

Now 24, he was primarily a middle infielder at Fordham, hitting .295 with four homers and 66 RBIs over three seasons. He made five relief appearances as a freshman, none as a sophomore and 10 as a junior, totaling 26 1-3 innings.

His career path changed on March 14, 2011, when he threw four shutout innings of three-hit ball against Charleston Southern that completed the Rams' four-game southern swing. Jay Heafner, a Rangers' scout, was in the stands.

"What stuck out to me was the athleticism translated pretty well on the mound," Heafner said. "He didn't really look like a position player trying to pitch, a mere thrower. He actually had some tilt to the ball. All that stuff kind of culminated into thinking there was a chance he could make the transition."

Heafner had been told to watch Martinez by Juan Alvarez, a former major leaguer who also was a Rangers scout at the time. When Martinez was a junior at Belen Jesuit Preparatory School in Kendall, Florida — a school founded in Havana in 1854 and relocated to Florida in 1961 after Fidel Castro's revolution — Martinez's father called Alvarez and asked him to give Nick pitching lessons. Alvarez, who lived about four blocks away, had a mound in his backyard.

"The first day I saw Nick," recalled Alvarez, now a Cleveland scout, "I told his father, 'I've never seen your son play shortstop. I've never seen him hit. But with that type of arm, I guarantee his future is going to be on the mound.'"

Heafner spoke to Martinez before the draft and told him Texas wanted him to make the switch.

"When they first came with the idea, I really wanted to be a position player, but you do what you can with the opportunity," Martinez said.

He was drafted on the 18th round in 2011 with the 564th pick and signed for a $60,000 bonus. He worked his way through the minor leagues and made the jump from Double-A to the majors for his debut in April 2014. He went 5-12 with a 4.55 ERA in 24 starts and five relief appearances last season. Texas is 8-1 in his starts this year, nearly half the wins for a team that is 20-23.

"Growing up right in front of our eyes," manager Jeff Banister said. "Nick's been a guy that's been in complete control. His composure on the mound has been spectacular really. He has not shown any anxiety anywhere, no nervousness."

PHOTO: Texas Rangers Shin-Soo Choo (17) follows through on an RBI single to centerfield against the New York Yankees during the third inning of a baseball game, Saturday, May 23, 2015, in New York. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Texas Rangers Shin-Soo Choo (17) follows through on an RBI single to centerfield against the New York Yankees during the third inning of a baseball game, Saturday, May 23, 2015, in New York. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

During the last two spring trainings and on a West Coast trip in 2014, Martinez discussed pitching with Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, the brother of Texas pitching coach Mike Maddux.

"We talked mostly about sequencing, reading hitters' swings, the mindset of the game," Martinez said. "Attack hitters early in the count. That's how you create early contact. We've only really just scratched the surface."

Mike Maddux says confidence is a factor.

"He knows that he can pitch in the big leagues. That's the biggest thing," he said. "He knows where his outs are and understands a swing. He can read hitters well."

Martinez walked Brett Gardner and Alex Rodriguez in the first, then retired Mark Teixeira on a popup and struck out Chase Headley.

"Big key," Banister said. "That inning could have become a little problematic."

New York didn't get a hit until a fourth-inning infield single by Alex Rodriguez.

"He gave me a little shout out when he got to second," Martinez said. "He kind of just winked, said, 'What's up?' Gave me a head nod. I got his autograph a couple times, and he knows my high school coach."

Martinez allowed solo homers to Carlos Beltran in the sixth and Didi Gregorius in the seventh, giving up five hits overall.

"He did a good job of staying off the middle of the plate and working the corners," Gardner said. "He kept us off-balance. It's not like he's going to light up the radar gun, but he knows how to pitch."

When he pitched at Yankee Stadium for the first time last August, Martinez arranged tickets for 15 former college teammates and two coaches. This time, he did not leave any.

"They were able to get their own tickets," he said. "It's nice. It saved some cash."

BIG INNING

Texas sent 14 batters to the plate in the highest-scoring inning for the Rangers since an 11-run third against Houston in a 16-5 win over Aug. 29, 2013, according to STATS. Texas won its fourth straight and at 20-23 is three games under .500 for the first time since starting 6-9.

UP NEXT

Rangers: Yovani Gallardo (3-6) has lost four of his last five starts going into Sunday night's game.

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Photo Gallery:
PHOTO: New York Yankees catcher John Ryan Murphy waits for the throw home as Texas Rangers left fielder Jake Smolinski (20) scores on a base hit by Shin-Soo Choo (17) during the third inning of a baseball game, Saturday, May 23, 2015, in New York. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
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