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Knuckleball helps Las Vegan keep MLB comeback flickering

Big league dreams die hard. This is especially true when you’ve had one come true. The dream never seems to last long enough, and then you find yourself riding a bus to some tumbleweed town with kids almost half your age.

Some guys will do almost anything for another shot of glory.

J.D. Martin has learned how to throw a knuckleball.

A couple of years after he was selected in the first round of the 2001 major league draft by the Cleveland Indians as compensation for free agent Manny Ramirez, the strapping right-handed pitcher moved to Las Vegas. He figured our favorable tax laws would provide shelter for all the money he planned to make by painting big league corners with a modest but accurate fastball.

It took nine seasons before he would pitch in the majors.

Martin, who grew up in Ridgecrest, California, where earthquakes add movement to modest fastballs, spent parts of two seasons with the Washington Nationals. He started 24 games. He won six, he lost nine, his earned-run average was 4.32. He doesn’t remember a lot of it, except that it was a dream come true.

He said when he pitched in Wrigley Field he was credited with an ESPN web gem.

One of the Cubs hit a line drive and he snagged it.

That was when he was 26 or 27.

Now he’s going on 37, though he doesn’t look it. Only once this season when he was picking up his hotel key did the girl at the front desk mistake him for a coach.

In the shade of the Oklahoma City Dodgers’ dugout, he took off his cap to reveal a hairline straighter than the chalk line from home plate to the foul pole in left field.

J.D. Martin smiled. He said the knuckleball is coming along.

Knuckleball sandwich

It had been three days since he was called up from Double-A Tulsa to Oklahoma City — 106 miles; 1 hour, 36 minutes on the Roy J. Turner Turnpike — to pitch against the Aviators in his adopted hometown. For the first time in his 18 minor league seasons — 17 domestic, one in Korea — Martin slept in his own bed on the day he pitched.

He went 5⅔ innings, allowing seven hits and three runs — practically a shutout the way a juiced baseball sails over the fence at Las Vegas Ballpark. He walked one, struck out three, allowed two baseballs spiked with SunnyD to sail over the fence. Martin said he threw at least 85 percent knucklers at the home side.

He said the goal is to throw 100 percent knucklers, once he can command them. Having never been blessed with the big heater, Martin learned how to paint corners. You don’t paint corners with a knuckleball. You sort of toss the whole palette toward home plate and hope some of the paint finds the strikezone.

Martin said learning the knuckleball wasn’t his idea but that he has come to embrace it. That without it, he’d probably be working for his dad’s construction firm.

“I was with the Nationals, and they mentioned that they wanted me to start doing it,” he said of reinventing himself as a pitcher. “But I wasn’t ready. I still thought I was pretty young.”

Five years later when he got in touch with Charlie Hough, who won 261 major league games throwing the knuckleball and saved 61 more, Martin wasn’t that young anymore.

“I’m not sure if anyone has been to the big leagues as a conventional pitcher and then got back there as a knuckleballer,” he said.

“This is my 19th season; I just want to keep going. My wife (Erin) loves the game. I want my two kids (Tripp and Tuck) to remember me playing. And, ultimately, I want them to see me playing in the big leagues. When I was in the big leagues, they weren’t born yet.”

Steven Wright of the Boston Red Sox is the only major leaguer still throwing a knuckler. Wright made the American League All-Star team in 2016. Knuckleballer R.A. Dickey won a Cy Young Award in 2012. Hoyt Wilhelm pitched until he was almost 50; Phil Niekro to 48. “Knucksie” won 318 games en route to the Hall of Fame.

This is why when the other pitchers seek respite in the clubhouse, J.D. Martin practices making baseballs dance in the oppressive August heat.

The media guide says he is pushing 37. The mind tells him that in knuckleball years, he’s still pretty much a kid.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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