As the rain began falling in earnest Saturday morning and the wind pushed the wet stuff sideways, Nick Martinez and Chi Chi Gonzalez hopped onto the back of a utility cart and sat side by side as they were driven to the clubhouse.
The short ride served as yet another instance of the right-handers being paired together. But none of it is coincidence, except possibly the fact that they wear consecutive jersey numbers, 21 and 22.
They are in-season roommates, throwing partners and sounding boards. They come from the same part of the country, south Florida, and their mothers’ sides of the family came to the United States from the same region in Cuba.
Martinez and Gonzalez also push each other to be the best and are thrilled when the other succeeds — even though they are again competing with each other, and a host of others, for one spot in the Texas Rangers’ rotation.
No matter how hot the competition gets, things stay cool on and off the field between the baseball besties.
“It’s a competition that we leave at the field,” Martinez said. “We’re obviously friends. We want to make each other better, and I’m sure he would say the same: He wants to beat me at my best, and I want to beat him at his best.
“None of us wants the easy way to the end of the road. We try to do anything we can to help each other out on the field.”
Each landed last season at a similar crossroads after failing to make the team out of spring training and then struggling in their short big-league stints in the first half. In the intersection was a speed bump that neither seemed able to roll past.
Martinez didn’t know how to keep himself in games longer, tripping as he went through a lineup for the third time. Gonzalez wasn’t being himself, pressing the issue for more velocity on his fastball or a sharper break on his breaking pitches.
The resolution for both was a change in mind-set. Martinez overhauled his game plan. Gonzalez is going back to what allowed him to be a first-round pick in 2013 and to dazzle in 2015 during his initial stint in the big leagues.
“Last year was just a struggle of controlling my own things,” Gonzalez said. “I was just trying to be somebody different. All I did this off-season was focus on my mechanics that got me to where I was two years ago.”
Martinez believes he started to get over the hump late last season and cleared it while pitching for the Toros del Este in the Dominican Winter League. He finished his stint there riding a 23-inning scoreless streak.
Seeing his hard work and changes pay off has led to more confidence.
“It’s just a different mind-set of how to go about my business,” Martinez said. “Maybe I matured a little bit in that aspect. There’s not one particular thing. It was an overall perspective. Going to the Dominican with the mind-set of how to attack guys the third time through the lineup.”
Pitching coach Doug Brocail attributed a lack of experience for slowing Martinez and Gonzalez. A case can be made that each was rushed to the major leagues and not give a chance to ripen in the minors.
Martinez was the surprise pick in 2014 to be the Rangers’ No. 5 starter amid injuries throughout the rotation. He then made the club on merit in 2015, when Gonzalez was promoted with only one full minor-league season on his resume.
Each pitcher had to learn at the highest level of baseball in the world.
“I’ve always wanted to play ahead so I could cut the learning curve,” Martinez said.
Brocail, though, said that their greatest learning might have been done after being moved to Triple A Round Rock to start last season.
“Last year was a building year, and then [Martinez] goes down to the Dominican and had some success,” Brocail said. “These were guys who had to come to the big leagues out of necessity. You’re thrown to the fire, and when they don’t have success, one, it doesn’t help the team, and it sure as hell doesn’t help them.”
Brocail said that there was a “wow factor” with Martinez’s bullpen session Friday. He and Gonzalez have wowed at times early in their career.
Here they are again: side by side and competing against each other for one spot.
They can’t both win it, but whoever doesn’t will be thrilled for the one who does.
That’s what baseball besties are for.
“Brothers,” Gonzalez said. “We take it as a challenge. We talk to each other. We give advice to each other. At the end of the day, it’s better that way because we want one of us competing for that job. We want to keep it between us two.”