Nick Martini toiled through the St. Louis Cardinals’ organization for seven seasons, often starting in Double-A Springfield and finishing in Triple-A Memphis, hitting well, getting on base frequently and never losing faith.
“The thing that keeps you going is there’s still a chance,” Martini said. “You obviously don’t know if it’s going to happen. As long as somebody’s giving you a chance, you can get a shot.”
Martini, a 2008 Prairie Ridge graduate from Crystal Lake, finally got his opportunity in June when his new team, the Oakland Athletics, called him up from Triple-A Nashville, where he was scorching the ball. He was hitless in his first short major league stint, but has made an impact since returning in late June.
Martini’s journey went from making the majors to regularly finding himself in the A’s lineup to, recently, becoming the leadoff hitter on one of baseball’s hottest teams, an upstart group now in the middle of a playoff race.
“It’s been a fun ride so far,” said Martini, a left-handed hitter batting .311 with an on-base percentage of .439 entering Friday. “Especially to know they have the confidence in me leading off knowing we’re tied for the wild card and it’s a playoff race. It’s been a ton of fun.”
Martini was relaxing by the pool at his hotel Thursday, the A’s day off, while talking about the biggest season of his life.
“It’s just taking it day-by-day, slowly working good at-bats, having a positive outlook with what I’m doing,” Martini said. “Just day-by-day, and forgetting about what happened the day before and looking to what’s coming the next day. It’s going pretty well.”
Martini, 28, was called up for three days in June, then returned to Nashville. A’s manager Bob Melvin has seen Martini contribute with an expanded role on this trip to the bigs.
Those close to Martini expected him to succeed, even at this level. Kyle Williams, a 2008 Cary-Grove graduate, lived a couple of blocks from Martini and played youth baseball through age 15 with him. They often hit 200 balls a day off a tee together while growing up.
“I’m kind of not surprised because I saw him when we were young, and he’s always risen to whatever level we played at,” Williams said. “I never anticipated he would be overmatched. It’s kind of his personality – he’s a confident guy, and he should be. I check his stats every night and kind of expect him to be on base about half the time.”
A's minority owner and executive vice president Billy Beane became famous for his "Moneyball" approach in the early 2000s, which puts a premium on players who reach base. That is Martini's forte.
Martini stretched his Triple-A streak of reaching base to 65 consecutive games when he was sent back to Nashville. He also set the NCAA record of 93 consecutive games reaching base while he was at Kansas State.
“He’s like an acquired taste,” said Scott Martini, Nick’s father. “It takes a while. You sample it for a while, then you say to yourself, ‘What can I do? I have to put this guy where I can get him at-bats and he can help the team win.’ I kind of anticipated that he might work himself in there, just strictly from the on-base percentage standpoint.”
Scott Martini, Mike Williams and Kevin Tobin started their Lake in the Hills Generals team when their sons were 8 years old. They became the McHenry County Generals, then the Illinois Generals and played together through age 15.
Scott Martini was coaching a 9-year-old team in Peoria on June 23 when Nick got his first major-league hit, a game-winning single to beat the White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field. Mike and Kyle Williams were there, as were Kevin Tobin and his son, Ryan.
“He has the ability to get on base,” Mike Williams said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. When Nick was little and he got a called third strike, we used to joke that the umpire must have been wrong. He’s always had this insane knowledge of the strike zone and ability to work counts.”
Scott Martini chuckles when that story is mentioned.
“I’m still doing that at this level,” Scott said.
Nick Martini frequently led off with Springfield and Memphis, and was the Memphis Redbirds’ leadoff hitter when they won the Pacific Coast League title last season.
“I just feel like I need to put together a good at-bat [eading off], see a few pitches, see what this guy’s got, let other people see what he’s got and go from there,” Martini said.
Mike Williams planned to head to Scott Martini’s home in Crystal Lake on Saturday night to watch the A’s take on Detroit. The Tigers will throw right-hander Jordan Zimmermann, so Williams and Martini’s favorite leadoff man should be in the lineup.
“He knows how lucky he is. He’s one of 500-some players playing a game he’s played his whole life,” Scott Martini said. “He’s had disappointments, but the kid continues to do what he loves to do. I think he would do it if he wasn’t even paid. He absolutely loves baseball.”