Machi capitalizing on long-awaited opportunity
Reliever owns the lowest ERA among pitchers who have thrown 20-plus innings
Ask Jean Machi's teammates about him, and their attention is yours in earnest.
iPhones are tucked into lockers -- the Instagram pictures will still exist in a little while. It's not like the dropped wedding ring could've rolled far; it'll surely be found. Just another pregame interview becomes a relished opportunity to pay homage to the reliever with the seemingly perpetual smile and the impressive 0.29 ERA through 31 innings this season.
"He's always in a good mood. Obviously things are going well, but he's always been that way," said Giants closer Sergio Romo, who first befriended Machi in 2008. "To see him do well at this level and still be exactly the same, just a little bit more established and comfortable, it's really cool to see."
Machi, 32, has combined a previously nonexistent comfort level with a 94-mph fastball and a devastating splitter, to allow just one run through mid-June. In his second full big league season, Machi owns the lowest ERA among pitchers who have thrown 20-plus innings, and he has catapulted himself from obscurity to a potential All-Star.
Machi arrived at his apex on May 11. The Giants had just countered a ninth-inning comeback by the rival Dodgers, with a three-run top of the 10th. In came Machi for the save, a moment 14 years in the making.
"That was the one thing he had always mentioned privately, that he always wanted to have a save," fellow reliever Javier Lopez said. "A reliever is always going to run into a big league win at some point -- it just happens. The save, that means you're the last man standing."
Machi had been a closer in the Minor Leagues, and he had successfully saved three games in the 2014 Caribbean Series. But the right-hander had never closed a game in the Majors.
Machi earned the save by striking out Dodgers slugger Matt Kemp, inducing a groundout by Andre Eithier and striking out Miguel Olivo to end the game.
"I think that was the biggest smile I've ever seen on the guy's face," said Lopez, who recalled stuffing Machi in a laundry bin with his teammates after the game. "That smile on his face was awesome. Those things don't go unnoticed for us.
"Those things are once in a lifetime. To get that, it's cool. He's the kind of guy we love to have at the back end of the bullpen. He's definitely not only one of my favorites, but I think everybody on this team roots for him."
After all, the story of a guy who toiled in the Minors for 13 years lends itself to endearment.
"What better place to say you got a save in the big leagues, in one of the biggest rivalries in sports?" Romo said of Machi's save in Dodger Stadium. "What a ride, huh? What a road for him."
Three years ago, Machi was in an exit lane, prepared for a new direction.
San Francisco had recently signed Machi and loaned him to Diablos Rojos of the Mexican League for the summer. It had been 11 years since the Phillies signed an 18-year-old Machi out of Venezuela in 2000. Four organizations and numerous Venezuelan Winter League stints later, he had lost hope of actualizing his Major League dreams, despite being picked up by the Giants organization.
"When I went to play in Mexico, I thought it was the end of my career," Machi said, speaking through translator Erwin Higueros. "I talked to my family, and the support I got from my wife helped me get through it. I talked to them and I said, 'This is the end of my career.'"
The Mexican League, Machi said, is not like the Majors.
"If they need another player, they'll go ahead and get one, and get rid of you and that's it." Machi said. "It's done. So I guess that's what motivated me, that I needed to do my best and continue to do my best, so that I could stay with the team."
Machi took seven miles per hour off his fastball, subsequently improving his command. Giants assistant general manager Bobby Evans was impressed by his 2.30 ERA.
"He didn't know this, but our only options were to release him or bring him back," Evans said. "He was pitching really well, so we wanted him back."
At the close of 2012 Spring Training, Machi was sent to Triple-A Fresno, where he saved 15 games. That September, Machi was called up to San Francisco and made his Major League debut. A 31-year-old rookie in 2013, Machi, having finally been given the opportunity, excelled, posting a 2.38 ERA while striking out 51 batters in 53 innings.
"I was mentally ready to do something else, but you never know," Machi said. "The Giants gave me an opportunity and here I am. Bobby Evans believed I could do the job. The support of my family and people believing in me made the difference."
The difference in results, Machi believes, should be attributed to two factors: increased self-confidence that stemmed from the September 2012 callup, and the ruthless crowds he pitched in front of in Venezuela.
"Over there in Venezuela, the fans get in your head," Machi said. "Not only are they taunting you, they insult you and they threaten you. That bothers you a little bit. Here, it's different. Here, the fans don't get on you; it's a completely different culture.
"The pressures that you feel in Venezuela are just a lot, and then you come in to a pressure situation here and it seems like I'm already mentally ready to face those challenges. Now that I'm here, I just want to take advantage that I'm here, and I want to be consistent in what I do so that I can stay here and help the team."
There are 29 other teams that now wish Machi could say the same for them.
"It's tough to be the new kid in school, for anybody," Lopez said. "When you have to be the new kid in school, year-in and year-out with a different club, that's tough, because you have to make those good first impressions in a game like this that's results-oriented. To have to do that continuously, and maybe not get the reward or the praise that you're looking for, it can be difficult. But I've never seen him complain about it, he never brought [it] up. He's just the kind of guy to be thankful the Giants have given him this opportunity, and we're thankful to have him."
Ryan Hood is an associate reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryanhood19. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.