PHOENIX -- The fans would wave and yell for Jean Machi, holding up baseballs, jerseys and cards, desperate for an autograph. After a few weeks, it got to be too much. When the Giants spilled into the visiting dugout in St. Louis one afternoon last summer, Sergio Romo took out a thick piece of white tape and stamped it on Machi's back. Romo borrowed a reporter's pen and wrote a short message.

"I'm Machi," the tape read, "Not Pablo."

A year later, Machi is finally known for much more than having the same build as fellow Venezuelan Pablo Sandoval.

The right-hander has broken through at 32, becoming one of the most valuable relievers in baseball while putting up numbers more suited for a video game. Four hundred thirty-two big leaguers have thrown at least 10 innings this season, and none have an ERA lower than Machi's 0.29. The lone run on Machi's ledger came April 15 against the Dodgers. Since then, Machi has thrown 25 consecutive scoreless innings, the longest active streak in the majors.

"He's just been awesome," manager Bruce Bochy said. "It's unbelievable. Those numbers are a little crazy to have at this time of year, but you do see that occasionally."


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Not long ago, Machi thought he would never put up any numbers -- good or bad -- in the big leagues. Machi, now listed at 6-foot, 255 pounds, was a skinny 18-year-old shortstop when the Philadelphia Phillies signed him out of Venezuela, kick-starting a winding journey through the minors. The story is a familiar one in baseball. The big-armed kid had command issues at nearly every level and stalled in four organizations.

The Giants saw flashes that they liked, though. Dave Machemer, a coach in the system, watched Machi play in the Mexican League and wrote a glowing report, and the Giants signed him in 2011. But with full bullpens in the big leagues and Triple-A, the Giants were happy to loan out Machi when a Mexican team, Diablos Rojas, inquired about his services. As Machi went through another long summer of bus rides, this time south of the border, he began to think seriously about his future.

"That 2011 season, that was my last shot. If I didn't make it (to the big leagues), I wanted to try to explore other leagues like Japan," Machi said through teammate and translator Juan Gutierrez. "I thought, this is it for me."

Machi didn't break through that year, but his family persuaded him to take one more shot. The Giants brought him to camp in 2012, and again, Machi's Mexican team came calling.

"That time I said, 'No, he's too close to the big leagues,' " assistant general manager Bobby Evans said. "He wasn't going back. We saw him as a guy who could help us up here."

Machi made his debut as a September call-up in 2012, seven months after his 30th birthday. Fourteen years after he first signed, he has become a go-to guy for Bochy, who has long insisted that Machi is sneaky athletic (a fact he validated with a stunning bunt in an extra-innings win over the Pirates last month) and "has the equipment" to succeed in the big leagues.

That arsenal includes a fastball that tops out at 95 mph, but Machi relies primarily on a self-taught splitter that has devastating late break and has always been his weapon of choice.

"He's learned to get hitters to mishit the ball," left-hander Jeremy Affeldt said. "He's got a split that can go two different ways, and he understands that you don't have to throw it way out of the strike zone. You want the hitter to make contact, but make bad contact, and that's what he gets them to do."

Catcher Hector Sanchez said Machi's splitter "is way bigger than it was last year," leading to the breakthrough.

"It's crazy, man," Sanchez said. "It's always down in the zone, always."

Machi has given up just 17 hits in 31 innings and has mitigated much of that paltry damage with eight double plays. He'll take his scoreless streak -- the longest by a Giants reliever since Affeldt's 29-inning run in 2009 -- into this weekend's series with the Arizona Diamondbacks, the team in the opposing dugout when Machi finally made his big league debut. Two of Machi's five wins this year have come against the Diamondbacks, but it's another feat that stands out to him in this remarkable season.

Teammates say Machi is rarely talking but always smiling and laughing. Machi dialed up the intensity May 11 in Los Angeles, when Bochy handed him the ball with a three-run lead in extra innings. Machi struck out two while picking up his first big league save.

"That meant a lot," said Machi, who has 41 saves in the Venezuelan Winter League. "I always wanted one save in the big leagues. That was a dream come true."

For more on the Giants, see Alex Pavlovic's Giants Extra blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/Giants.