Ethan Martin struck out nine batters on Wednesday, but allowed three runs over four innings in the Phillies' 11-3 loss to the Mets. (USA Today Images)
NEW YORK — There are flashes of brilliance in rookie right-hander Ethan Martin’s performances. Averaging 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings through his first six big league starts, Martin has a live arm of a bona fide strikeout specialist.
The problem is he can’t seem to pile up the innings. Martin has 32 strikeouts in 25 1/3 innings this season along with 107 whiffs in 115 innings at Triple A in 21 starts, or a little more than five innings per start in the minors.
In Thursday afternoon’s 11-3 loss to the Mets at Citi Field (see Instant Replay), Martin became just the ninth starting pitcher to get nine strikeouts in four or fewer innings since records were kept in 1916.
The problem is Martin needs a lot of pitches to get those strikeouts. He threw 86 pitches on Thursday and threw 44 pitches in just two-thirds of an inning in his previous outing.
Though the lack of efficiency certainly cuts into Martin’s ability to pitch deep into games, it could bode well if the Phillies were to convert him to a closer-type.
Could that work?
“There hasn’t been too much discussion about that,” manager Ryne Sandberg said. “In a bright spot, he had nine strikeouts in four innings. He did have some walks and really seemed to hit a wall in the fourth. With a young guy like that, this is late in the year for him. He hasn’t really experienced the number of innings and the number of pitches that he’s thrown. That’s taken effect on him a little bit, but you know it was quality for three and he hit a wall after the fourth.”
Sandberg is on to something. In 21 starts in the minors, Martin made it past the sixth inning just three times and he has done it once in his six big league starts. More noticeable is how Martin struggles the deeper he gets into games. Heading into Thursday’s game, the 24-year old was virtually unhittable with his first 25 pitches.
After that, all bets are off.
“I felt pretty decent in almost every start. It’s just that when I get to that 60-pitch mark, I kind of struggle,” Martin said. “I have to get to where I can sit back and get through there. Hopefully I can get to that point this year. Hopefully I can get to that 60 or 70-pitch mark and get on through those innings.”
He’s going to get his chance to do it. Though he might be a bit tired after a long season and 141 innings in 27 combined starts, Sandberg says there is plenty Martin can learn in taking the ball every five days.
“Anytime a guy starts he still gets to work on things,” Sandberg said. “He’s throwing less pitches with his shorter outings, but you never know if he’s going to bounce back and give us six good ones at this time of the year, but it’ something to keep an eye on and watch carefully. That’s basically what we did the last two outings when he didn’t have it and lost a feel. We figured it was time to get him out and not have him stress out there with where he’s at in the season. This is all new to him with the innings.”
At the same time, the hard-throwing righty can show off his ability to rack up the strikeouts. After giving up a two-out walk in the first, Martin struck out the next five hitters he faced. All told, he had six strikeouts against the first nine hitters he faced.
After three innings, Martin had eight strikeouts and trailed by a run following a one-out double from Daniel Murphy.
When the fourth inning ended, Martin trailed by three, had three walks and allowed a long homer to catcher Anthony Recker.
Though he says he’s trying to get quick outs and get ahead of hitters, Martin seemingly has no choice to go for the strikeouts. It’s a catch-22 for the kid.
“My whole plan coming into the game was to get ahead and get some quick outs. I tried to take the strikeouts when I could,” Martin said
“A majority of the strikeouts were probably on 2-2 or 3-2 [counts]. I’ll take them if I can get them against the No. 3 and 4 hitters.”
It adds up, but the Phillies have to like what they see in those few flashes.
Meanwhile, the Mets piled on seven runs against reliever Cesar Jimenez and Justin De Fratus. The Phillies’ hitters had just two hits going into the seventh inning against starter Carlos Torres before finally breaking through for three runs in the seventh and eighth innings.
Next, the Phillies head to Chicago for a three-game series in Ryne Sandberg’s return to Wrigley Field. Here are the pitching matchups for the series:
Friday: Roy Halladay (3-4, 7.81) vs. Jeff Samardzaija (8-11, 4.03)
Saturday: Cliff Lee (11-6, 3.07) vs. Chris Rusin (2-3, 2.64)
Sunday: Kyle Kendrick (10-11, 4.40) vs. Jake Arrieta (1-1, 4.50)