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Scott Carter | Florida Athletics | June 17, 2015

Florida shortstop Richie Martin's glove work result of daily dedication

  Richie Martin applies a tag in Monday's game against Virginia.

OMAHA, Neb. -- The play generated a round of oohs and aahs around TD Ameritrade Park.

From his seat inside the stadium, Richard Martin cheered another catch by No. 12 for the Gators. He's seen his son make similar catches, this one earning Gators shortstop Richie Martin a highlight on ESPN's "Web Gems."

"That's him. He's going to make the plays the other guys don't make,'' the elder Martin said. "That's just the way he is. He loves his craft."

In Florida's dugout, assistant coach Brad Weitzel felt a sense of satisfaction for the play made by one of his favorite pupils.

It happened in the bottom of the fifth inning in Florida's 1-0 loss to Virginia on Monday night. The game was scoreless when Virginia's Adam Haseley stepped to the plate with two outs.

Haseley lifted a high fly ball toward left-center field. As Florida outfielders Harrison Bader and Buddy Reed converged, they both backed off as Martin made a spectacular over-the-shoulder catch for the final out of the inning.

Richie being Richie.

"Those kids are told if Richie calls something, especially in the air, he is really, really sure-handed about that,'' Weitzel said. "Richie gets to balls no one dreams about. They'll just say, 'Richie, go get it.' "

What he does more than any infielder I've ever coached, he works more than all of them.
-- UF assistant Brad Weitzel

And as Florida fans know, Richie usually does.

A junior from Brandon, a long fly ball from downtown Tampa, Martin is a primary reason the Gators are back in the College World Series for the first time since 2012.

Those 2010-12 Gators, which made it to Omaha three consecutive years, factor prominently into why Martin came to Florida and will be at shortstop Wednesday when the Gators face Miami.

Drafted in the 38th round by Seattle coming out of Bloomingdale High, then 17-year-old Martin knew he needed to mature and grow before embarking on a professional career. He narrowed his college choices to Clemson and Florida.

He watched those Florida teams each year in the CWS and decided he wanted to experience Omaha for himself.

"It's every college player's dream,'' Martin said. "This is it, right here, why you come to college instead of going out of high school to play pro ball. This is never going to happen again for me."

And then he had to wait. The Gators advanced to the NCAA Tournament in each of Martin's first two seasons, but their stay was short, going 0-4 in regional games.

A broken finger on his right index finger, which he suffered early in the season trying to bunt against the Hurricanes, hampered Martin's freshman season. He spent much of the season in center field.

As a sophomore, Martin started all 63 games at shortstop and established his place as one of the team leaders heading into this season. Still, he wasn't exactly content with the way he played.

Martin committed 21 errors, which served as motivation to come back better than ever as a junior.

"I knew I had to do something, make a change,'' he said.

He played in the Cape Cod League last summer with the Bourne Braves and set a club record with a .364 average. He also heeded important advice from Weitzel: take 100 ground balls a day.

If Martin was going to improve defensively -- he always had above-average range and speed to get to balls others can't -- he had to slow the game down.

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When Martin returned home over the break, his dad took over the role as fungo hitter.

Sometimes the two would spent two or three hours a day at Bloomingdale High's baseball field or a local Little League field to work on Martin's fielding.

As long as they found an available field, they went to work.

"I told him anytime he wanted to go out, I'm available for him,'' said Richard, a retired math teacher and pretty good baseball player in his day.

Richard Martin played at Northwestern High in Detroit, where two of his teammates -- four-time All-Star Willie Horton and 1970 American League batting champion Alex Johnson -- helped turn Northwestern into a powerhouse program in the 1960s.

"We worked really hard,'' Richie said. "We would go up to my old high school. If that was closed, we would find an open Little League. If that was closed, we'd go on a T-ball field or something."

Weitzel noticed improvement when Martin returned to school for fall ball. The veteran coach could see Martin had not spent his free time at the beach.

"This is my 36th year either scouting or coaching,'' Weitzel said. "What he does more than any infielder I've ever coached, he works more than all of them. A lot of it is on his own. He's taken more ground balls than any kid I've ever been around.

"When you count up all the kids I've coached, and all the big leaguers I've coached or been around or signed, that's a power statement. It's not like I started coaching three weeks ago."

How did all that extra work on his technique pay off for Martin?

He has committed only eight errors in 67 games, flashing skills like his catch on Haseley's fly ball Monday. Martin's stellar play at short and a strong supporting cast is why the Gators lead the nation in fielding percentage.

"We had to slow him down because he was out of control as an infielder," Weitzel said. "He would charge the ball too hard. He wouldn't stay inside the ball. He wouldn't move his feet right. It was a raw, out-of-control talented player who needed to calm down and slow the game down."

Martin's defense and offensive potential is also why the Oakland A's selected him in the first round (20th overall pick) of last week's MLB amateur draft.

In a draft that featured six shortstops in the opening round, the A's had their eyes on Martin for a while.

"He's a baseball rat," Oakland scouting director Ed Kubota told reporters following Martin's selection. "We think he's going to maximize his ability that he has. He's an elite athlete. We think his defensive ability has the chance to be special. There's really nothing we don't like about his defense."

Martin is also a threat offensively. He homered in Florida's Super Regional-clinching win against Florida State and is hitting .283 with five home runs and 33 RBIs as the Gators try to keep their season alive against the Hurricanes.

Martin is due in Omaha, going 0-for-8 in two games -- he doubled in a 15-3 victory against Miami on Saturday but was ruled out when the Hurricanes appealed that he missed first base.

As his Florida career comes to a close, Martin considers his time at Florida as an engineering major and glove man the most important decision of his life. The 20-year-old Martin, the youngest college position player in the draft, credits Weitzel and assistant coach Craig Bell for their input on his defensive improvements.

"Brad is more mechanical and Craig pretty much tells me to go out and be athletic and make the play anyway you can,'' he said. "They offer both sides of the spectrum."

Martin's desire to get better isn't contained to the field. He often pulls up footage of old major league games on the internet. He'll even go as far as check out old box scores to see plays where batters grounded out to the shortstop to see if he can learn something new.
None of that surprises Weitzel, an old-school baseman lifer in his eighth season on Florida head coach Kevin O'Sullivan's staff.

That's just Richie being Richie.

"I've spent hours and hours and hours with that kid on the field or in my office,'' Weitzel said. "He gets his daily dose. The next day he is back in there for his dose, good or bad. He wants to get better.

"He's not afraid to sweat."

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