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Pirate caravan hits town

Marte still smiling about 2012

December 13, 2012
By John Hartsock ( , The Altoona Mirror

Outfielder Starling Marte came with a very high ceiling when he arrived in the major leagues with the Pittsburgh Pirates late last July.

It was fitting, then, that Marte hit the first pitch he saw almost through the proverbial roof.

Marte - who accompanied catcher Michael McKenry, outfielder Jose Tabata, third base coach Nick Leyva, broadcast analyst Bob Walk, and team president Frank Coonelly to Altoona's Peoples Natural Gas Field Wednesday evening as part of the Pirates' 2012 Winter Caravan - etched his name into the Buccos' record book last July 26 by drilling a fast ball from Houston lefthander Dallas Keichel high into the left-centerfield bleachers in the Astros' cavernous Minute Maid Park.

Marte, now 24, became the first Pirate to homer on the first pitch that he saw in his big-league career since Walter Mueller accomplished the feat way back in 1922. Marte also became the first Pirate to homer in his very first big-league at-bat since Don Leppert did so in 1961.

"I was surprised that I got a home run on my first pitch,'' Marte, a native of the Dominican Republic, said with a smile. "I was so happy, so excited that I did it in my first-at-bat in Houston. I hit it hard, but I didn't know that it was going out. I got to second base, and I saw [Nick] Leyva waving me around at third.''

Marte speaks in fluent Spanish and broken English. Leyva was on hand to help with some of the translations Wednesday during a media session in the visiting clubhouse at PNG Field.

Marte, who was ranked 73rd on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list last February, won an Eastern League batting championship while hitting .332 as a member of the Curve in the 2011 season. He was promoted to Class AAA Indianapolis in the first half of the 2012 campaign, and became an International League Midseason All-Star before he was fast-tracked to the Pirates in July.

He hit five homers and drove in 17 runs in 47 games while logging a .257 batting average with the Bucs last season.

"The half-season in the major leagues really helped me,'' Marte said. "Now the jitters and nerves you get when you first come up to the major leagues are behind me. Now I know that I can play at the major league level, and I'm a lot more relaxed.''

With Andrew McCutchen set in center field, the Pirates' other two outfield spots are up for grabs between Marte, Alex Presley, Tabata, and trade-deadline acquisition Travis Snider. Marte, whose overall ability drew comparisons to a young Roberto Clemente last summer, appears to have an inside track on the left-field spot.

"He's got all the ability in the world,'' Leyva said of Marte. "Some young players try to do too much when they first come up. If he just relaxes and plays like he can play, he's going to be just fine.''

Last offseason, Larry Broadway - the Pirates' director of Minor League operations - went on the record as saying that the 6-foot-2, 184-pound Marte is really still a work in progress.

"Starling has very good athleticism and speed to go along with the ability to hit,'' Broadway said. "The scary thing is that he is starting to mature physically and is starting to develop power as well. His speed-power-hit combo is going to make him a very fun player to see mature.''

Pirates' fans certainly had to like their first look at Marte's maturing process in the second half of last season.

He pointed out that his 2011 season with the Curve was a big building block for him.

"I'm really happy that I came through here,'' Marte said of his experience in Altoona. "I won a league batting title here, and I really learned the strike zone while I was here.''

Marte has extended his learning curve while honing his skills playing winter ball this offseason in the Dominican Republic.

"Playing down there has really helped me,'' he said. "There are a lot of major league players down there, and I've been talking to them, listening to them, watching them play, and learning from them. I just want to help [the Pirates] by playing the best that I can play.''

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