State

Pitcher plays with 'angel on his shoulder'

ESCALON — Justin Martinez would pitch, he insisted, because there was no better way to honor his father.

Chris Martinez, the perfect player's father, cooked more than a few hot dogs for the Escalon High Cougars and even coordinated a father-son softball game. His voice could be heard at each game, pulling for Justin and his teammates.

And then that voice was muted. A heart attack claimed him Tuesday at age 49, too young to go and far too young for the younger of two sons.

But Justin, a 17-year-old senior left-hander and the scheduled starter for Wednesday afternoon's game against the Trans Valley League rival Hughson Huskies, knew what to do.

When coach Greg Largent asked him the day before if there was anything he could do, Justin responded, "Give me the ball." To which Largent replied, "Done."

So Justin, with his father's spirit on his fingertips, threw the game of his young life.

"It wasn't hard at all. I knew he was there," Justin said. "However the day would go, I knew it would be good. I wasn't afraid at all."

All Justin did was strike out 11 and walk only two. The only hit he allowed was a fisted single over the third baseman's head by Tyler Moreno, the game's second batter. One out away from a 9-0 Escalon victory, Largent walked to the mound and relieved his inspired pitcher, setting off a heartfelt ovation from the crowd of about 250. Teammates gathered to hug him, and the grinning pitcher even was embraced by Hughson coach Rolando Aguilar.

"The way he pitched today was phenomenal," Escalon second baseman Josh Miguel said. "That was one of his best games."

Why? Easy answer.

"That angel on his shoulder was very apparent," said Largent.

The Escalon student body and faculty has been dealt a double blow this week. The Chris Martinez tragedy was compounded by the death of Escalon graduate Grant Altamirano, an assistant basketball coach. Life throws its own knockdown pitches, students learned, and early wisdom grows from how one recovers.

For Justin, there was no decision to make. His performance — an efficient 82-pitch beauty — spoke to his correct call. He had thrown the baseball since he was 5 years old, but never with such control.

"All my pitches were working for me. Everything was in my favor," he said. "My teammates astonished me."

All-around support

The other Cougars taped their wrists and scrawled "CM" on them. Track athletes skipped practice to lend their support. Students who never before attended games found a reason to be there. Even the Escalon and Hughson junior varsity teams joined their respective varsity sides for a pregame moment of silence.

For its part, Hughson honored its saddened foe by playing hard to the end. Escalon (6-1, 2-0), a powerhouse team coming off a 26-1 season in 2009, nursed a 2-0 lead until a 2-run single by Matt Valencia and a 3-run homer by Nick Largent in the sixth.

That settled the outcome, leaving only Justin to finish.

"He was throwing first-pitch curves for strikes," Largent said. "He relied early on his fastball and he later found his breaking ball. I told him later, 'What you did today was heroic.' "

To Justin, however, stepping to the mound was the most natural reaction. He celebrated his father's life by doing, in his dad's words, what he does best.

Services won't be announced until today, but there's little doubt Escalon's baseball team will stand beside Justin and his family.

"There were no pregame jitters," Justin said. "This game proved that he is still here. He is not dead."

Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or 578-2302.

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