HOUSTON -- Jose Reyes remembers the batting-practice showcase a 16-year-old Fernando Martinez displayed at Shea Stadium shortly after signing with the New York Mets in 2005 for $1.3 million. It came that summer, as the phenom became the first import of what was promised to be a wave of Dominican talent that would flock to the organization as a result of Pedro Martinez's signing.
"I mean, he was hitting home runs all over the field," Reyes recalled. "Left field. Right field. It was unbelievable."
Six years later, Martinez has averaged only 77 games per professional regular season because of assorted injuries. And Mets observers who are conditioned for outfield prospects to receive hype and then fall flat -- Alex Escobar and Lastings Milledge, anyone? -- already have assigned Martinez to that failed group.
Yet while Martinez may have an awfully arthritic right knee for a 22-year-old, he still is just a 22-year-old. And on Friday night at Minute Maid Park, Martinez offered a reminder of the power that seduced the Mets and awed Reyes in the first place.
Promoted from Triple-A Buffalo for a bench role when Ike Davis landed on the disabled list Thursday -- in large part because there was no healthy and productive first baseman on that minor league club -- Martinez launched a critical pinch-hit homer Friday. The two-run shot off Houston Astros right-hander Bud Norris in the eighth -- coupled with a two-run homer by David Wright later in the inning and an RBI double by Jason Pridie in the ninth -- lifted the Mets to a come-from-behind 6-4 win in the series opener.
"Sometimes I feel like an old man, because I came in here like '09," Martinez said with a laugh, referring to his major league debut.
Said manager Terry Collins: "If he stays healthy, he's going to be a big league player for years. I mean, there's no question. This guy has all the skills it takes to be a star. But you've got to keep him in the lineup. As he knows, and he will be the first to tell you, he's got to stay healthy. In spring training we talked to him the day he got sent down. We sent him down early. And the first thing we said was, 'Look, you've got to show us that you can stay in the lineup and you can stay healthy and there's a huge future ahead of you.'"
The four-run deficit was the largest overcome by the Mets in a victory in 367 days, since May 11, 2010, against the Washington Nationals. It was Martinez's second major league homer. His other long ball came June 30, 2009, at Milwaukee off Todd Coffey.
The Mets generally have not wanted to call up young players to ride the bench, believing it is more valuable for them to have regular playing time in the minors and develop. Still, there was not really a better alternative for a lefty bat for the bench with Lucas Duda nursing a back problem. And the ultimate object is to win at the major league level. So Collins reasoned he could get Martinez an at-bat a day as a pinch hitter as well as an occasional start in right field for Carlos Beltran.
"He's been swinging the bat the best down there, and that's what you need," Collins said.
So Martinez watched the first five innings of Friday's game from the bench, then headed to the cage to stretch and swing and prepare for his spot as a pinch hitter.
"Early yesterday I prepared my mind to be ready for anything -- to play, or to go to pinch-hit," Martinez said.
He took Norris deep on an 0-1 slider to pull the Mets within 4-3.
"A little mistake, so I got it," Martinez said with a giddy giggle.
Said Reyes: "That's the thing about him. He was not able to stay healthy on the field. He's had a lot of injuries throughout his career. But he's still young. He needs to find a way to stay on the field, because he's a very good player."