Not even half an hour had passed since the final out, and the Dodgers’ clubhouse staff had retrieved the game ball, enclosed it in a square plastic case, attached a label to the foundation supporting the case, and tucked the ball safely within the pitcher’s locker.
“1ST CAREER POSTSEASON SAVE,” the label read.
The proud owner of the ball is 36 years old, two years older than Craig Kimbrel, who ranks seventh on the all-time save list. On Tuesday morning, the Dodgers set their National League Division Series roster without Kimbrel. On Tuesday evening, the Dodgers’ closer was Chris Martin.
At the trade deadline, the Dodgers and San Diego Padres each acquired a reliever. To great fanfare, the Padres got Josh Hader, a four-time All-Star. The Dodgers got the relatively anonymous Martin, a former teammate of Shohei Ohtani in Japan, a champion last year with the Atlanta Braves, a holder of nine career major league saves.
On Tuesday, in the Dodgers’ 5-3 victory over the Padres, Martin got the save. That was not the role the Dodgers envisioned for him when they traded for him.
“No, not necessarily that,” said Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations. “But I did think there was a very real pathway to him pitching very meaningful innings for us. Never really contemplated the ninth at that point, but he’s come in and fit in extremely well with our group and thrived.”
Friedman said he had tried to acquire Martin at the 2019 trade deadline, for the same reasons he got him this year: Martin can get right-handers and left-handers out, and he is what Friedman called “an elite strike thrower.” With the Dodgers, he has faced 96 batters and walked one.
If the Dodgers deploy a closer Wednesday, Martin might not be the one. If Juan Soto is due up, left-hander Alex Vesia might get the call. If the Dodgers had not used Evan Phillips in the sixth inning, he might have gotten the ninth. The Dodgers could unwrap Blake Treinen at some point.
In the absence of Kimbrel, the Dodgers are all about the matchups, and the analytics. It’s an old-school bullpen: Your role is to pitch when asked, not define yourself as an eighth-inning guy or whatever. Martin said Josh Bard, the Dodgers’ bullpen coach, helps each reliever see the most likely spots for him in each game.
Still, Martin acknowledged, the ninth inning was something special. Different innings feel different, he said.
“I would lie if I said they didn’t,” he said.
Roster security feels different too. Martin was drafted twice but did not sign, then hurt his shoulder, worked at Lowe’s and UPS, and eventually landed a spot on the independent Grand Prairie AirHogs in Texas. He signed his first contract with a major league organization at 24 and made his major league debut at 27.
That was in 2014. By the end of the 2015 season, he had pitched for the Colorado Rockies and New York Yankees, with a combined earned-run average of 6.19.
Japan called. He answered.
“This is a bad thing to say, but obviously financial security is a big part of it,” he said. “I didn’t have a signing bonus or anything like that. I was a little bit older, and I understood the situation I was in.”
He pitched two full seasons with the Nippon Ham Fighters, with a 1.07 ERA the first year and a 1.16 ERA the next. Financial security afforded him a window to develop, so well that he could return to the major leagues and prosper. Ohtani taught him a grip for his split-finger changeup.
In 2016, Ohtani hit .322, with 22 home runs and posted a 1.86 ERA. Ohtani was 21. Martin got a front-row seat for the Ohtani Sho.
“It was a lot of fun to watch him every day,” Martin said.
“Over there, we fly with regular commercial flights. We had to protect him, push people aside. There were fans at airports, in train stations. It was crazy. He just put his head down and did his thing.”
One of these years, we hope, Ohtani will get a ball for his first postseason victory, or first postseason home run, or first postseason something. In the late hours of Tuesday night, Martin had a ball for his first postseason save.
“It’ll probably end up in the garage,” he said.