Nick Martinez did two things Saturday night in his major league debut that none of the other four members of the Texas Rangers’ rotation could do to open the season.
He pitched six innings, and he left with his team in the lead.
And all he likely will have to show for those feats is a plane ticket to Double A Frisco.
Martinez lost out on a win in his first career start when Tampa Bay scored twice in the eighth inning against left-hander Neal Cotts, who walked the leadoff man and couldn’t retire a lefty hitter en route to a 5-4 loss.
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James Loney had the go-ahead hit, a two-run double over the head of left fielder Shin-Soo Choo in a spot when the Rangers were hoping for a double-play grounder. Instead, they will need Yu Darvish to pitch them to victory Sunday to avoid a three-game sweep at Tropicana Field.
Martinez, meanwhile, took a no-decision after one of the Rangers’ key pieces in a makeshift bullpen couldn’t get the ball to closer Joakim Soria.
“He pitched exceptionally well,” Cotts said of Martinez. “He got deep in the game and made some really good pitches. It would have been great to get through that inning and get him a win. He deserved it.”
Martinez allowed three runs in six innings but was twice bitten by the long ball. Yunel Escobar started the third with a shot to left, and Matt Joyce launched a two-run shot into the right-field corner in the fourth.
But Martinez finished his night with two scoreless innings to preserve a 4-3 lead and was replaced by Jason Frasor to start the seventh. Martinez, who threw only 85 pitches, allowed four hits and three walks while striking out three.
“I felt great. I had a blast out there,” said Martinez, who is the player mostly likely to lose his roster spot to create one for Darvish to come off the disabled list.
“I had nerves a little bit, but I think I handled them all right. I learned to limit my mistakes. I made a couple mistakes I wish I could have back, but that’s part of the game.”
The Rays nearly pulled even in the seventh against Frasor, who was rescued by a spectacular bare-handed play by shortstop Elvis Andrus on a David DeJesus chopper to strand the tying run at third base.
Cotts got the call for the eighth with three potent right-handed hitters coming up for the Rays, a situation that new starter Tanner Scheppers would have worked last season.
Cotts moved ahead 1-2 in the count to leadoff man Wil Myers but lost the 2013 Rookie of the Year to a walk. After a Ben Zobrist sacrifice bunt moved Myers to second, manager Ron Washington elected to put the go-ahead run on base by walking nemesis Evan Longoria.
“He’s the one guy in their lineup we weren’t going to let beat us,” Washington said. “I felt good with Cotts vs. Loney.”
Loney was next in a lefty-on-lefty matchup. He, too, was down 1-2 in the count before delivering a double two pitches later that easily scored Myers and was deep enough for Longoria to slide home ahead of a relay throw.
Cotts held lefties to a .204 average during his comeback season last year. Righties hit only .157 against him. But on Saturday he was most lamenting the Myers walk.
“That’s the big thing in the inning,” Cotts said. “I had him down, and I let him go. He got on with a free pass, and you can’t do that.”
Choo and Andrus had jump-started the Rangers’ offense against David Price, who tossed a complete game in Game 163 last season to keep the Rangers from going to the playoffs for a fourth straight year.
Choo and Andrus opened the game with singles, but Price retired Prince Fielder and Adrian Beltre. Alex Rios, though, laced a double into the gap in left-center field, and the Rangers led 2-0.
Martinez needed only 11 pitches to complete a 1-2-3 first inning. The Rangers then pieced together three straight two-out singles in the second to push their lead to 3-0. Josh Wilson started it with an infield hit to third, and Choo and Andrus followed with liners to left.
After Escobar solved Martinez to start the Rays’ third, the Rangers quickly countered in the fourth when Choo delivered a sacrifice fly to score Robinson Chirinos, who had been plunked in the shoulder to start the inning.
Joyce, though, got the Rays back in the game in the fourth, and the Rangers managed only an infield single by Wilson over the final five innings.