Big night for Braves rookies Cunniff, Martin

MIAMI – Hours before the Braves’ season opener Monday at Marlins Park, a couple of rookie pitchers in Braves gear walked out in the outfield. And that’s when it really began to hit Cody Martin and Brandon Cunniff. They had arrived.

“We went out and played catch, we were here we were the first go out there,” Martin said, “and I was like, this is pretty unbelievable, huh? We did it. We’re here. He’s like, ‘this is awesome.’ And we were both just smiling from ear-to-ear.”

One night later, the smiles were replaced by adrenaline and butterflies when both pitchers made their major league debuts in a 12-2 win against the Marlins.

Cunniff, 26, the guy who spent toiled five years in the minor leagues, including two seasons in a lowly independent league after being released by, yes, the Marlins. And Martin, 25, who spent four seasons in the Marlins minor league system without a big-league callup, and was left unprotected in the December Rule 5 draft.

Cunniff pitched a scoreless sixth inning that began with him facing arguably the most feared hitter in baseball, 6-foot-6 slugger Giancarlo Stanton. He walked Stanton, but retired the next three batters, striking out Michael Morse before getting a couple of fly ball outs.

“It was amazing,” said Cunniff, who was still so excited after the game, he could barely put together a sentence when surrounded by reporters and a TV crew. “To get out with a scoreless inning in my debut. Amazing.”

This is a guy who was pitching for the River City Rascals of the independent Frontier League in 2011 and 2012, after being released just 18 appearances into his pro career when he was with a Marlins Single-A affiliate. Now, the 5-foot-10 right-hander was making his big-league debut facing Stanton, whose $325 million contract is the largest in the history of sports.

“Oh, it’s unbelievable,” Martin said of Cunniff’s story. “Good for him, especially against the team that released him. That’s a big screw-you to the Marlins. They gave up on him pretty quick, and he had good numbers, too. I looked them up.”

Indeed, Cunniff had a 2.34 ERA and 36 strikeouts with six walks in 34 2/3 innings in his 18 rookie-league and low Single-A appearances for the Marlins before they released him in 2010.

“Sometimes that’s just what people need to really jump-start (their career),” Martin said. “I guess he really just got focused when he got in indy ball, he really started working out hard, his velocity spiked. He’s got great stuff.”

Cunniff had a 1.59 ERA and 71 strikeouts in 68 innings during 42 minor league appearances in 2014, including 33 appearances at Double-A Mississippi. He had not pitched above the Double-A level before facing Stanton Tuesday.

After Cunniff pitched the sixth inning, Martin handled the seventh and eighth with ease, striking out four and allowing only one base runner on a ground-ball single by Christian Yelich. He struck out Morse, Dee Gordon, Adeiny Hechavarria and Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

It was more of what the Braves saw all spring from Martin, who didn’t allow a run in four Grapefruit League appearances and had eight strikeouts in nine innings. But this was the real thing, not spring training. And as soon as he came off the field, Martin’s phone was buzzing with messages and calls of congratulations from family, friends, and people he hadn’t talked to in years.

“Oh, my God. It didn’t stop, all night,” he said. “It’s ridiculous.”

Calls, emails, texts?

“Everything,” Martin said. “Like, Twitter and Instagram and Facebook messages. I’m like, nobody ever talks to me. I really only talk to my fiancée and my parents, and my brother every once in a while. Grandparents maybe every couple of weeks. Everybody’s talking to me now. Gosh. I’m exhausted.”

He had a late dinner at the hotel with his fiancée, Andrea, and at one point Martin had to interrupt their conversation.

“I told my fiancée, you’ve just got to give me 15 minutes, I’m going to text all these people back,” he said. “She’s like, ‘That’s fine. I’ll call my parents.’ So it was pretty cool.”

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