Kovacevic: Wild, wonderful world of Marte
Always let the thoroughbred run wild.
For all else there was for the Pirates to embrace on this stirring Sunday at PNC Park, where 10 runs in the final two innings crushed the Reds by a 10-7 count, where backup Michael McKenry went deep twice, where Starling Marte slugged a cloud-seeker of his own, where the bullpen picked up a nervous Phil Irwin in his big league debut, where irked Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker grabbed the box score afterward and tore it into his office wastebasket … what I found most moving was one seemingly innocuous play in the seventh inning.
No, really. Stay with me here.
The Reds were up, 5-0, when McKenry led off with his first shot. After two outs, Marte lined a single, and Travis Snider lofted what controversially was ruled a double after bouncing off a fan over the Clemente Wall.
Even as the home dugout began to leap in protest, Marte poured it on. He went into full gazelle mode around second, put his head down approaching third and blew right through Nick Leyva's stop sign. By the time he touched home, the Reds just got the ball to the infield.
And Leyva clapped.
What would you have done?
In theory, Marte made a lousy decision. Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen were due up, and no one wants to make the third out at home when you're down four runs.
But with Marte, throw out the theories and the fears. There are few regrets when letting him to do pretty much anything he thinks he can do.
“Players like that, they have those abilities,” Leyva would say afterward. “I've been lucky to be around guys like Roberto Alomar, Ozzie Smith … this young man's right there. He's one of those. He's got that type of tools. He's one where you just say, ‘Go get'em, son.' ”
Explains a lot.
So up came Marte in the next inning, the score now 6-6 and Jose Tabata aboard.
Earlier, Marte had committed an error that cost a run, he'd grounded out and struck out twice. It's the type of showing that can bury a 24-year-old in his first full big league season.
Must have had a lot on his mind as he locked eyes with flamethrower Jonathan Broxton.
“No,” he snapped right back.
Well, how about when Broxton got ahead with a fastball?
“No. Nothing. Not thinking about anything.”
Not until Broxton then hung an inside slider, anyway, and Marte attacked it like a mortal enemy. This wasn't about leadoff-type patience or going the other way or any other facet of standard baseball maturation.
This came with two steps:
The ball took off as high as the light standards and landed deep into the left-field rotunda.
“My God,” teammate Tabata recalled. “He killed it.”
Still sprinted around the bases, too, barely breaking stride to high-five Leyva.
“I see it's a breaking pitch, it's coming in, and I gave my best swing,” Marte described. “Not thinking about anything. It's baseball. It's a game. I don't let anything bother me. Why should I?”
Honestly, I still can't get a firm feel for these Pirates, not with a 6-6 record and not even after this intense, impressive sweep of an opponent that's among the class of the National League.
But I know this right now: If they rise, it'll be because this special athlete — unleashed on the field, unbridled in baseball joy — will play as much of a marquee role as he has so far: He's batting a team-best .347 with two doubles, a triple, a home run, seven RBI, two steals and a .385 on-base percentage.
And that's to say nothing of the best outfield arm in these parts since, what, Dave Parker?
Look, this is hardly a done deal. Pitchers will find holes, and he'll have to adjust. There will be slumps, as there were last summer. The free-swinging he did in the minors will have to continue to morph into, if not walks, then better selectivity.
But for right now …
“Yeah, I'm feeling pretty good, pretty confident,” Marte said.
He then grabbed his cellphone to show me a text he got Friday from Rene Gayo, the Pirates' Latin American scouting director who found Marte on a Dominican sandlot in early 2007 and signed him with an $85,000 check right on the spot.
“Rene told me I've got to play like Brandon Phillips this weekend,” Marte said, referring to Cincinnati's do-it-all, All-Star, Gold Glove second baseman.
“I always trust Rene.”