April 20, 2010

Sementelli holds her own as baseball pitcher

MORE: Watch an exclusive interview with Sementelli | Ambidextrous pitcher tosses no-hitter

Gary Sementelli is a former high school and American Legion player. He also is a self-proclaimed baseball fanatic.

When he and his wife, Rosa, were in the delivery room at Newton-Wellesley (Mass.) Hospital years ago, they watched Elton John perform a song on the The Arsenio Hall Show that talked about the special bond between a father and son. He dreamed of future days on the baseball field.

"I was getting all emotional," Sementelli said, "And then all of the sudden, the doctor said it was a girl."

The vision changed, but not the dream.

Seventeen years later, Marti Sementelli is playing baseball. Quite well, in fact.

She has pitched 21 1/3 innings for Birmingham High in Lake Balboa, Calif., and is currently 2-1 with 13 strikeouts and just four walks. Birmingham, just 2-24 last season, is 9-10.

She is not the only girl on a high school baseball team. Far from it.

In fact, 385 girls played high school baseball last season in California alone, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. But only a limited number of those saw game action, and those that did likely were position players. None of the Southern California coaches interviewed for this story knew of another female pitcher on the varsity baseball level.

"A lot of times when you see girl players, they don't necessarily have the throwing technique and mechanics that Marti has," Birmingham coach Matt Mowry said. "That's what sets her apart from any other girls that I've ever seen."

Her given name is Martina, but she was named after Pedro Martinez as much as anyone. She pitches just like the future Hall of Famer, relying on location and a deceptively strong fastball from a sinewy frame.

Sementelli throws a slider, a changeup, a two-seam and four-seam fastball and two different kinds of palm balls - all with sound fundamentals and an effortless delivery. By Southern California high school standards, she has average velocity - high 70s to low 80s. But the 5-2, 115-pounder compensates for her lack of power by throwing with precise control and a lot of movement.

"When you first look at her and her stature, you don't expect that much," Birmingham catcher David Rodarte said. "But you see what she has, and it's really amazing."

Has been from the beginning.

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Sementelli acquired her father's love for the game at a young age.

By 2-and-a-half, she began swinging at balls with a Boston Red Sox souvenir bat. A year later, the family moved to Sherman Oaks, Calif., to be closer to friends and for better weather.

As it turned out, her father's job with the local parks and recreation department had the perfect perk: It gave them virtually unlimited access to indoor and outdoor baseball facilities. They took full advantage. By the time she was 5, she and her father had a regimen of throwing, fielding and hitting.

"She was drilled on baseball," Gary said. "She was definitely weaned on it, trained on it."

Sementelli became an early phenomenon. At age 5, she outplayed the 7 and 8-year-old boys in the coach-pitch league. At age 7, she joined the Sherman Oaks Little League. Sementelli struck out nine in her first game and fanned 100 during her first season. At age 14, she posted a 14-0 record in Sherman Oaks' junior division.

Her Little League exploits led to a salvo of media coverage. When she was 10, she appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live - and struck out Kimmel swinging. At age 14, she appeared on a Nike ad with Mia Hamm and Picabo Street, declaring her wish to play professionally for the Red Sox.

Her younger sister, now 12, also started playing baseball - but didn't share the passion. She switched to soccer a few years ago.

Marti never has lost her love of the game.

In 2008, at age 15, she was the youngest member of Team USA during the 2008 Women's Baseball World Cup in Japan. The team was filled with women in their 20s, 30s and even 40s, but Sementelli was named the best pitcher in the tournament, posting two wins, five strikeouts and a 1.50 ERA - giving up just two runs in 12 innings. She was on the mound when the team defeated Australia for the bronze medal.

Sementelli described her experience on the all-girls, U.S. team as "a dream come true."

It was an experience that made her a hit - and a role model - with a younger crowd.

Several younger girls have reached out to Sementelli on Facebook, seeking advice about USA baseball. Sementelli, who looked up to former Vassar College player Lilly Jacobson when she was younger, is honored to serve as a bridge between older and younger female players.

"It's really cool," she said. "It's like a little cycle."

But despite all the accolades and successes, her journey has included a few setbacks, too.

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Finding a high school willing to have a girl pitcher on its baseball team was not easy.

Two area private schools - Campbell Hall and Notre Dame High - said she would have to play softball.

She thought she found a fit at Burbank (Calif.) High, a top-level school with top-notch facilities. But after Sementelli posted a 6-1 record for the junior varsity last year as a sophomore, she transferred to Birmingham.

The Sementellis said they felt the Burbank staff did not let her use her full arsenal of pitches and worried the team had so many other pitchers that she would not make the varsity team as a junior.

Burbank head coach Bob Hart acknowledges there were issues with her pitch selection and that his 2010 varsity team returned two quality front-line starting pitchers. His only complaint is that he said the family never informed him she was transferring. He, however, still holds Marti in high regard.

"I've always been a fan of hers," he said. "She has tremendous poise, command ... I would personally wish her the best of luck. I hope she does well, and I'll be rooting for her."

Sementelli has plenty of fans at her new school. Birmingham plays in the West Valley League - a league that has some of Sementelli's former Little League teammates.

"I got along with the kids in Burbank really well, but it's a little different here," she said. "It's not necessarily laid back here, but it's a little more chill, and I have a lot more fun."

Sementelli quickly meshed with the Birmingham squad. Other than changing clothes in the girls' restroom adjacent to the clubhouse, she is just one of the guys. If anything, her teammates act like a collective big brother.

When utility infielder Nick Padilla threw a ball her way during practice and it took an awkward bounce and bloodied Sementelli's nose, the guys ripped Padilla for accidentally hitting a girl. It became a running joke.

"It wasn't his fault. I mean, it took a bad hop and I missed it," she said. "They got all over him about it and very protective of me. ... They'll stick up for me in any situation."

Birmingham's opponents also support her. Sementelli said she has not heard any negative comments from players or fans. After a game, the other coaches often encourage her - if they know she is a girl. Because Birmingham has fitted hats, Sementelli tucks her long hair under her cap, unintentionally concealing her true identity.

She allowed just one run during three innings against baseball powerhouse Crespi Carmelite (Calif.) High. But it was not until after that Fall League game that Crespi coach Scott Muckey realized her gender.

"I didn't know she was a gal; I just thought she was a freshman guy out there," Muckey said. "(She) looked like a pretty tough kid and went out there and pitched pretty well against us."

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Sementelli is just a junior so she has another year of high school baseball ahead of her. After that, it's unclear.

She hopes to continue playing with the guys as a college baseball player.

"She could go play on the next level," Mowry said. "I don't know about like an Arizona, ASU at that level, but I think there are possibilities at a Division-II, Division-III level, junior college."

That's OK with Sementelli.

"If I get a shot for a D-I, great, but I will settle for (Division) II or III as long as everyone's going to be cool about it," she said. "If I play at a Division III and I'm getting a lot of playing time and I'm getting treated right, that's fine with me."

And while the assumption is that her skill set would enable her to join a top-level college softball program, that's not the case.

The transition to softball would be difficult. Especially pitching.

Softball pitchers obviously throw with a different motion - and most of the former have honed their delivery since they were toddlers.

"The pitching category is completely different," Birmingham softball coach Jim Rose said. "If she hasn't done it, there's no way she could go out there."

Rose wanted to ask Sementelli to contribute as a batter on the softball team during Birmingham baseball's off days. But Sementelli does not hit anymore, preferring to focus on pitching.

She can field - and plays second, third and shortstop when not pitching - but when she's in the field, Birmingham uses its designated hitter for her.

Sementelli potentially could adjust to softball, but she has no interest in trying.

She embraces the challenge of playing against boys. And baseball is her passion.

"I just couldn't ever see myself playing softball," she said. "I don't think my heart would ever be in the game like it is for baseball."

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