ian Martellini steps into the box for his first at-bat as a member of Boston College baseball. Barely 200 people sit in the stands in the dry but cool 76 degree heat of spacious Camelback Ranch, the spring training home of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox. It’s a full two weeks before spring training games will begin, but the Eagles are ready to go against Northern Illinois.
The scene’s not exactly how he might’ve planned it. The only sounds are the crack of the bat and Greg Sullivan yelling from the dugout. Roaring home crowds against a tough ACC opponent would’ve done the trick—but that’s the curse of playing ball in Chestnut Hill on a field that turns into a waterbed if the forecast even threatens rain. Still, his head coach, Mike Gambino, shows a lot of confidence in his bat. Gambino penciled Martellini in as the starting designated hitter, sixth in the order, ahead of the man whose job he’ll one day take: catcher Nick Sciortino. Against a team like this—college or not—Martellini feels confident that this is a good way to start his career.
But then, that first at-bat really doesn’t go how he planned.
Bottom of the second: Martellini gets under a fastball from starter Joe Hawks, lifting a short fly ball to right field. Just missed it, he thinks to himself. But it’s a can of corn—it’ll hang up there for a tad before falling safely into the mitt, barring a Jose Canseco off-the-head type disaster. Frustrated, Martellini put the bat down and began jogging over to first base before making a right toward the dugout.
It’s not the kind of jog you do around the Res to stay toned or when you’re heading out to field your position. Martellini’s really dogging it.
Gambino, the now eighth-year skipper who minds the third base coach’s box when his team is at bat, isn’t having it. Especially not from a freshman. He doesn’t yell. He doesn’t publicly reprimand. But as he’s walking back to the dugout, he takes his pencil and lineup card out of his back pocket and begins to search for a different name. It’s the second inning, but Gambino’s ready to quietly pull his soon-to-be star catcher for not hustling. Right as he’s entering the dugout steps, Martellini sees Gambino approaching.
Oh man, he thinks, that was stupid.
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artellini grew up in Johnston, R.I., just 40 minutes from Chestnut Hill. As you might expect, his Italian family was tight-knit. His father, Paul, is a second-in-command in the Rhode Island Division of Sheriffs. He and his wife, Gina, emphasized to their son that he needed to give back to his community. Throughout high school at Bishop Hendricken, one of the state’s best feeders for baseball talent—including former BC ace Mike King and associate head coach Jim Foster—Martellini participated in Habitat for Humanity and Hendricken’s peer-mentoring program.
But he didn’t exactly translate that charity over to the plate.
“Gian was, offensively, kind of a gorilla in high school,” Gambino said in his office last week, reflecting on the scouting reports from when he recruited Martellini. “He had power, he could hit the ball far, but he didn’t really know how to hit and didn’t know what it meant. And he could outstrength and out-talent that level, but needed to know what it meant, and didn’t.”
Initially, he didn’t take that same attitude to the field. In fact, when his coaches at Hendricken suggested he make the switch to catcher from third base, Martellini didn’t hesitate. He credits that move as a big reason why he earned any attention from scouts.
Still, we’re talking Rhode Island high school baseball for a guy bound for the ACC. He could pass just fine on his athleticism alone. Hitting was all he focused on. It paid off—like King before him, Martellini won back-to-back Rhode Island Gatorade Player of the Year Awards, and of course got the scholarship from BC.
He quickly learned that you can’t just outmuscle your way to success at the college level. Unfortunately for Martellini, other pitchers learned him even quicker. In the days of ESPN3 at virtually every college baseball game, especially ACC ones, Gambino notes that the book can get out on you faster than ever. And Martellini was very pitchable. Though he still had all the tools, pitchers realized they could pitch him backward—start him with the breaking ball, move to the speed later in the count, and baffle Martellini.
“He couldn’t understand early in his freshman year, all of a sudden five weeks, first ACC weekend, and they’re going first pitch strike to a breaking ball,” Gambino said. “And he’s like, ‘Why are they throwing me breaking ball first pitch?’ And well, it’s in the report, dude, it’s out there, so how are you gonna make the adjustment?”
Martellini struggled to make that adjustment. Playing mostly DH, he slumped down to a .224/.294/.327 slashline. With the left hand-hitting Scott Braren getting hot and the Eagles in the thick of what would later be a magical run to the Super Regional, Gambino pulled Martellini from the starting lineup. He didn’t like it, but he understood why.
“I started to struggle and Scott was hot, and we needed someone in that role that was ready to hit,” Martellini said last week. “At the end of the day, it’s all that matters.”
Luckily for him, he had some help.
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ambino has always given a lot of leeway to his guys. He’ll listen to them if they have the right feel about something, whether it’s the right pitch to hit or if they think they can grab that extra base. Lack of effort, however, he won’t tolerate. And when Martellini popped that ball up in his first at-bat, he saw a perfect opportunity to teach a young, cocky kid a lesson.
Nick Sciortino, however, didn’t see want to see it come down to that. The team captain stopped Gambino before he got to the dugout.
“I’ve got it,” Sciortino said.
“You want him in the game?” Gambino said. Sciortino nodded.
He then turned to Martellini and put him into a headlock, tight around the neck and shoulders, and started talking in his ear.
Just run. Just hustle.
“And that was the end of that,” Martellini later said.
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t’s no secret that BC can’t get recruits the way its ACC rivals can. No one will be ready to start day one. After all, the Eagles have produced two first-round picks under Gambino. One, San Francisco Giants 1B/OF prospect Chris Shaw, hit just .164/.266/.305 his freshman year, before maturing as a sophomore and breaking out to a .319/.411/.611 slashline as a junior with 11 home runs and 43 RBIs. Another, New York Mets pitching prospect Justin Dunn, had a 1-1 record with a 7.30 ERA as a freshman in four starts and 4-4 record with a 4.94 ERA in 20 appearances (three starts) as a sophomore, before dominating his way to the Super Regional with a 4-2, 2.06 ERA, 72 strikeout to 18 walk junior year.
That’s all to say: it takes time here. They’re not ready to start, but they usually have to, especially when adjusting to the recruiting cycle Gambino inherited.
Martellini is one of the first players under Gambino who wasn’t forced to stay in the lineup before he was ready. Unlike Sciortino, who came in as a blank slate behind the plate, Martellini had to unlearn some of the habits he built as a high school catcher, according to Gambino. Over the season, Martellini learned that catching was more mental than athleticism. Working with Foster, Sciortino, and current pitching coach Alex Trezza, Martellini developed the art of calling the game. He began to understand how to be a therapist to his pitchers and how best to communicate with them.
It wasn’t necessarily enough to get him back into the starting lineup consistently for that Super Regional run. But Gambino refused to just give up on him. In Game One against Miami starter Michael Mediavilla, who had dominating numbers against lefties like Braren, Gambino opted to load his lineup with righties—including Martellini at DH. He’d stay in until the Hurricanes went to a righty in the bullpen, then Braren would take over.
Martellini didn’t get it done. He went 0-for-3 in the 12-7 opening-game loss. (Braren, however, hit a three-run home run in his only at-bat.)
“But you could still trust him enough to give him an at-bat in the Super Regional,” Gambino said, because of the work Martellini put in. “It’s all part of the growth and development.”
That continued support boosted Martellini’s confidence. And, in retrospect, Martellini thinks that not only seeing how the team operates, but seeing the team win—and win big—without him added to his motivation to get serious about his game.
“It was good to learn from that, being on the bench and listening to what’s going on in the dugout and seeing what’s going on in the field,” Martellini said. “Like okay, this is what it takes, and this is how I need to act toward the pitchers and take care of business on the field. I took that, learned from it, and took that into last year and learned from it again.”
With Sciortino departing the program for the Lowell Spinners—he couldn’t comment on this story because he’s down in Fort Myers at spring training right now—Martellini knew his time was now. He spent the whole summer using everything Sciortino had taught him to improve his game defensively. He abandoned the “selfishness” of trying to hit a ball as hard or as far as possible, and adopted the mindset that, if he put his work into his defense, then his offense could be his “down time.”
The strategy paid massive dividends for the Eagles. As a sophomore who most often took up the three-hole in the lineup, Martellini hit a markedly improved .302/.364/.474—far and away the most well-rounded on the team—with five home runs and 35 RBIs.
More impressively, to Gambino at least, Martellini made just one error in 307 chances, caught eight runners, and picked off another four. Not quite Sciortino numbers, but dominant nonetheless.
“I had umpires at the end of last year come up to me during the game and say, ‘I can’t believe how much better Gian has gotten,’” Gambino said.
The overall improvements led Gambino, who confirmed that Martellini will be in the lineup every game, to make a bold claim.
“When Gian’s right, you can’t throw it by him with a bazooka,” Gambino said. “He’s gonna be in the conversation to be the best offensive catcher in the ACC, and if you’re gonna be the best offensive catcher in the ACC, you can be the best offensive catcher in the country.”
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artellini took the words Sciortino said to heart. He continuously hammered home his defense. He fixed his hitting simply by ignoring it. And yes, he runs out every single ball regardless of how easy it’ll be for the fielder.
But he also took that advice right in that moment.
Given new life in the lineup, Martellini stepped to the plate with one out and two men on in a still scoreless game in the fourth. The DH who almost came out of the game blasted a 400-foot shot down the left-field line, more than enough in a 5-1 opening day victory. Martellini may not have factored as much later in the season, but he was the first win in that 35-22 campaign of 2016.
Gambino knew from that swing what he had in his No. 3 hitter. He had an idea that he’d have that in Martellini anyway: a guy expected to hit over .300, with slight-to-pull home run power and 15-plus doubles. Nothing he can do is a surprise.
And, by the way Martellini reacted to the sentiment by Sciortino, Gambino also knew in that moment he’d have him not only as a catcher, but as a leader. He started showing it last year by fixing the problems at the plate and in the field.
It’s his team—and his responsibility—to lead Birdball back to the NCAA Tournament. With the lessons he’s learned, there’s no reason he wouldn’t be.
“Gian will be that this year,” Gambino said. “Now he’s that guy.”
Featured Image and Photos by Julia Hopkins / Heights Senior Staff