At the start of the season, J.D. Martin wasn't even sure he was going to be in the starting rotation.
The Bulls seemed more than set on the starting pitching front: Alex Torres and Chris Archer were top prospects, who had already seen time with the Rays in previous years. Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery had just been acquired, along with slugger Wil Myers, in a blockbuster offseason trade. And Alex Colome was a promising arm as well.
Martin, headed into his 13th season, and his 10th since first pitching in the International League in 2004, signed with the Bulls-his third IL team-two days after turning 30. In the last two years, he had appeared in 24 games in relief, and started 35.
He was expecting a similar role in Durham. He'd pitch long relief, and fill in when injuries, call-ups, or doubleheaders scrambled the starting rotation.
Fortunately, in Triple-A, it doesn't take long for all three to happen. Opening day in Norfolk was rained out, and a doubleheader on the third-day of the season was also disrupted by rain. Martin was called upon to start the second game of a doubleheader on the following day.
In game one of that doubleheader, Montgomery left with an injury and would miss a month and a half. By the time he returned, Torres and Archer were on their way to Tampa to stay. Odorizzi and Colome both saw multiple stints with the Rays, and Colome also suffered an injury.
The only pitcher who hasn't missed a turn in the rotation this season is the guy who didn't have a spot when the year started-J.D. Martin. He leads the league in games started and has already started more games than any season since 2004, when he was with Kinston in the Carolina League.
With 14 wins, Martin has already matched his career high and tied the Bulls Triple-A single-season team record. He has a three-win lead over the next-best IL pitcher and leads the Minor Leagues in victories. He's also among the league leaders in ERA and is fighting Odorizzi for the team lead in strikeouts.
Martin has also showed pinpoint control. He leads the IL in fewest walks per nine innings.
The league has noticed. Martin has twice been named the Pitcher of the Week in the IL's weekly awards. He's the first Bull to win the honor twice in a year since Jeremy Hellickson did it in 2010, on his way to the league's Pitcher of the Year award.
Martin was also named to the IL All Star team, the second time in his career he's earned the honor. He was named to the team as a member of the Syracuse Chiefs in 2009. Martin was a candidate to start the game, but he ended up entering in the second inning-the earliest a Bulls pitcher has ever appeared in the game-and preserved the IL's lead with a hitless inning.
As August began, Martin was riding a five-game winning streak, his second of the season, and the Bulls hadn't lost a game he started since June 28. That was also the last time-and just the third time this season-Martin has gone fewer than five innings in a start. He last gave up a home run on July 4.
With the Triple-A franchise record for wins already under his belt, Martin can set his eyes higher. His 15th in will tie him for the single-season record since baseball returned to Durham in 1980. His 16th will be the most by a Durham pitcher since Charlie Hudson of the Raleigh-Durham Mets in 1968.
If he reaches 17, it would be the most by any IL pitcher since Durham joined the league in 1998. Martin already ranks 10th on that list.
As the number of games dwindle and team officials scour the history books to find out the last time a Durham player matched Martin's accomplishments, the past date that means the most to him is July 24, 2010.
That was the last game Martin started in the Major Leagues. Over two seasons with the Washington Nationals, Martin started 24 games, going 6-9 with a 4.32 ERA. With Tampa pushing for a playoff spot and rosters expanding in September, it's possible the Rays might have a use for a consistent veteran arm.
And even if they don't know how they'll use him, that's okay. J.D. Martin has been in that situation once already this year.