Jesuits Martinek returns to diamond better than ever

When Christian Martinek's left elbow popped, he immediately feared the worst.

As a pitcher, when a sharp pain shoots up and down your limb — your gifted bazooka, your potential money maker — the worst case scenarios race through your mind.

Torn ligaments. Blown out appendage. Tommy John surgery. At least a year of rehabilitation. Elbows and shoulders are perilous extremities, particularly when a pitcher as flame-throwing as the left-handed Martinek is involved.

It was a pitch the Jesuit southpaw had thrown thousands of times.

It wasn't a curveball or a slider, just a run-of-the-mill fastball, the 40th offering he'd hurled the afternoon of March 27 against Greenway High (Ariz.) at the Greenway Festival during spring break.

But, somewhere in Martinek's delivery, something tweaked in an arm that can hit the 90 mph range consistently and has Major League scouts saying could be worth a lot of cash someday. For a moment, as his elbow throbbed, and he walked off the mound surrounded by trainers and coaches, the 2011 first-team all-state selection was unnerved by the realizable consequences. by: TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Jesuit pitcher Christian Martinek has rejoined the Crusaders and hopes to make a difference for their OIBA team this summer.

“It was definitely scary,” said Christian. “It was one of those things where your whole life flashes before your just think negatively when you have something like that.”

Christian's dad, Brian Martinek, an assistant coach at Jesuit, was sitting in the dugout when his son lowered himself to a squatting position, started massaging the elbow and called the coaching staff to the mound. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound defensive end is as tough as they come physically, a baseball player who competes with a football mentality. When Christian declined to even test the elbow with a practice toss, Brian knew something was amiss.

“He's never going to pull himself out of a game for a minor injury,” said Brian. “He's the kid you have to pull out, but on this one, he called it. He said 'I can't go'.”

A fleeting moment

When the Martineks returned to Portland, an MRI revealed a very slight tear of the tendon in his left elbow. The good news was no surgery was needed. Both father and son breathed a big sigh of relief, when they finally found out the diagnosis, at least for a fleeting moment. Christian didn't have to go under the knife for elbow reconstruction or the rewiring of his ligaments. Looking at his left elbow, there are no six-inch scars or traces of a massive rebuild.

Doctors prescribed the Platelet-rich plasma therapy, which contains several different growth factors that stimulate healing of bone and soft tissue, coupled with aggressive rehabilitation and six weeks of rest. The latter half of the instruction especially hurt Christian. A month and half of rest would effectively take him off the hill for the rest of Jesuit's spring season.

No problem, Christian thought. After all, at the time of the injury, he was hitting close to .600 with a homer, a triple and a handful of doubles. His combination of hitting, athleticism and fielding skills would allow him to play first base for the Crusaders and still contribute.

Yet, the doctors said he couldn't hit, play first base or roam the outfield because of the risk of further damage. Essentially, Martinek was resigned to the dugout, charting pitch counts, encouraging Jesuit's other pitchers and trying to pass on strategies on the Metro's best lineups. As a 17-year-old kid who played on the same Little League squad with most of Jesuit's upperclassmen, Christian could not have cared less about his individual future.

“Not being out there to help out and not playing the game I love was the worst part,” said Christian. “It was fun to see the game from the other side, but mentally it was tough, emotionally too.”

Draft status, signing bonuses and big pro contracts never crossed his thoughts. Christian was just bummed he couldn't be there for his team, when they needed his presence and charisma most.

“At 17 years old, you're not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel in any way, shape or form,” said Brian. “You only see right now, but his future is very bright. Each day that he's successful on the mound and with this process, he's starting to see it.”

by: TIMES PHOTO: MATT SINGLEDECKER - Christian Martinek has Major League potential on the mound with high-quality control of at least five pitches.

Road to recovery

It's been a frustrating two and a half months for a teenager who wanted nothing more than to help Jesuit win its first state championship in school history. The rehab process was mind-numbing and tedious. The itch to pick up a ball was beyond belief, as the Crusaders dropped out of the second round of the 6A playoffs. Christian was a workhorse reconciled to the stable as the elbow healed.

However, Christian's extended, arduous road to recovery is nearly complete.

Nearly five months after seeing his pitching career be put in peril by a small tear in his pitching hurler, he is almost ready to make his triumphant return to the hill.

Christian started a “Return to Throw Protocol,” which is a 21-step, pain-compliance-based program that's gradually worked the star back to the bump. On Thursday, Christian was on step 17 and is only weeks away from getting medically cleared by the doctors and going full-bore. He's only been throwing off the mound for a little more than two weeks, so there's rust to work through. But, Christian isn't laboring to ramp up his velocity, and he's getting stronger every day in terms of lower body strength. There's no unusual soreness or swelling in the elbow after a long bullpen session — a good sign the ligament's fully healed.

Brian said Christian will rejoin the Crusaders' OIBA team for the state tournament this week as a first baseman, adding another lethal bat to an already burgeoning lineup. Head coach Tim Massey is easing Christian back into the batting order. Christian probably won't pitch until the Area Code games in Long Beach, Calif., Aug. 4-9, but just to get back on the diamond again is reason enough to celebrate.

Return to the diamond

Martinek made his summer debut on Sunday in OIBA action.

“This is one of those challenges in life that make you better, especially if you respond to it well, and he is” said Brian. “Adversity makes you better, I believe that. I don't think he sees that, but at the end of the day, I think it's going to make a really good athlete even better.”

Christian said just running the bases last Monday at Jesuit's OIBA practice was enough to tempt him into riding the tail end of the Crusaders' summer season.

“It doesn't matter who I'm out there with, it's just being out on the field gets a smile back on my face,” said Christian. “This whole thing made me realize you can't take anything for granted. You have to go 100 percent every time you're out there. It was definitely a learning moment.”

Christian said he won't be thinking about anything other than playing (and winning) the game when he returns. If anything, the injury affirmed his love of baseball. The elbow took something away that's valuable to him, and now that he has baseball back, Christian is insistent on living in the moment and savoring the game.

“It makes you want to get after it,” said Christian. “Practice, conditioning... you love every part of it. You have to always go as hard as you can.

“It's one of those things where it's your dream to do that. Throwing it that fast, to the best of your ability and not having to worry about anything, it blocks out the whole world. You don't worry about anything, it's just complete love.”

Beastly competitor

Christian is already a beastly competitor with a surly demeanor on the field who would rather swallow a box of thumb tacks than lose a ball game. But, when Opening Day 2014 rolls around in March and head coach Tim Massey hands his ace the rock, expect a cantankerous Christian to make up for lost time.

“He's going to come back more ornery and more pissed off than he normally is, which is something,” said Brian. “I think he has something personally to prove to people, and he's going to channel that energy into being really good.”

Christian's reinsertion to a lineup and rotation that's flourished this summer in the OIBA amounts to what some consider the plausible 2014 state championship favorite. His senior teammates such as Evan Haberle and Trent Werner have held down the fort, and young players like Colton French have stepped up in various ways this summer that will catalyze next spring's team progression. On top of that, the 6A state playoffs are set up in such a way that an ace can pitch four of the five postseason match-ups including the state championship game with plenty of days in-between to rest and recoup.

“The key for us is getting enough runs so he can do his thing,” said Werner. “He's going to pitch 100 percent no matter what. He's not going to take a pitch off, so as long as we get him three, four runs, we'll be pretty solid.”

Ace card

At the time of the injury, Christian was throwing in the low 90s, which is wicked heat for a high school athlete. But more than gassing dudes up, the lefty was varying speeds, cleverly locating his pitches, commanding his change-up and curveball. He was becoming a pitcher, not just a thrower. Now, with months to make his arm and lower body stronger, linked with a perceptive knowledge of how to go after hitters, Christian's become a complete pitcher.

“That 96 (mph) is just the ace card in your back pocket, if you can move that ball around,” said Brian. “He wasn't doing that his freshman and sophomore year because it was just too easy to blow people by, but he's bought into his pitching coaches' philosophy of learning to throw three pitches well, and when and where to throw them. As coaches that's what we were most happy about, not the 90-something fastball.”

The speed behind Christian's fastball sets the rest of his armory up. A mid 90s heater is hard enough to hit, but when it's mixed with a change-up that appears to be a fastball coming out of Christian's hand, that's when opponents start to discombobulate.

“It's definitely my own zone, I don't think about anything else,” said Christian. “There's nothing that's going to break it. I'm just out there dealing. I put the blinders on and don't let anything else in. The whole time I get a sign, I know where to throw it...everything is just pushed out of the way, and I know what to do.”

'Untouchable when he's on'

Werner has played with Christian since they were sixth-grade teammates on the Raleigh Hills Club Little League squad. Werner said he hated playing infield behind Christian because no one would get the ball hit to the them.

“He just struck everybody out, it was boring,” said Werner with a laugh. “When he was pitching, you never get a groundball. Now I get a couple, but not as many as I'd like to. I've known ever since then that he's going to be good, and he's untouchable when he's on.”

Christian has been the focus of Major League scouts since bursting onto the baseball scene as a freshman. With his senior season on the horizon, pro observers will pepper the Jesuit stands, radar guns in hand, and scribble notes on a prospect some predict is first-round worthy. Brian said he'd like to see Christian go to college and play both football and baseball, if that's what he wants to do.

Christian says if the opportunity arises to go pro, he's “definitely going,” but he's open to going to college if the 2014 draft doesn't pan out. University of Oregon and Oregon State University are the two schools he's focused on, but he's talked to Vanderbilt, University of Southern California, University of California Los Angeles, Arizona and Washington as well. Christian said he'll make a decision on a school before football really gets going in the fall, but won't decide if he'll attend the university until after the draft next June.

“It's a check for me, to make sure I'm doing the right thing all the time, working out as much as I can and be the best I can as a baseball player,” said Christian. “When I see everything going on around me, I don't focus on anything but the glove in front of me, hitting it and getting outs.”

The pressure to pick a school isn't there, because UO and OSU are holding scholarships for Christian, just in case he decides to take the college route. He could wait until the day after the draft to commit, if he so desires. Some schools have backed off their recruiting of Christian, thinking he's a lock to go pro once the draft plays out in June.

“Everyone's goal is to make it to the Major Leagues. That's my dream and a little bit more,” said Christian. “The road to that is staying healthy, having good chemistry with the team and being a leader.”

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