By Ashley Dunkak
COMERICA PARK (CBS DETROIT) – Behind stellar pitching from starter Dallas Kuechel, the Houston Astros avoided the sweep Thursday afternoon, defeating the Detroit Tigers, 6-2, in the finale of the four-game series.
Kuechel’s mastery of the Tigers – he allowed just two runs and struck out seven over seven and two-thirds innings – did not extend to the often overshadowed Victor Martinez.
Usually the designated hitter, the 35-year-old Martinez played first base Thursday and extended his hitting streak to 11 games. His two singles and solo homer raised his batting average through 30 games to .333.
“Victor’s remarkable in his own right,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. “I’ve never come across a hitter like Victor.”
Over Martinez’s previous two seasons with Detroit, most of the attention has gone to superstar Miguel Cabrera and slugger Prince Fielder. When the Tigers traded Fielder in the offseason, some worried whether Martinez would provide sufficient protection for Cabrera. Through 30 games, Martinez has blasted seven homers. The most he has ever hit in a season is 25 back in 2007. Martinez hit 20-plus homers in back-to-back years before coming to Detroit, but he hit just 12 in 2011 and 14 in 2013.
Martinez has three homers in the last four games and overall has begun the season just like he ended last season – on fire – but does not put too much stock in the sudden power surge.
“I always say I’d rather be lucky than good, especially in this ballpark,” Martinez said with a laugh. “I’m trying to go out there and put the good part of the bat on the ball. I always say, always say, when you put a good swing in, anything can happen. I just make sure that I put a good swing in and see what happens. I think I’ve been a little lucky so far.”
Lucky to hit a few over the wall at a higher rate than usual? Maybe. Striking out just five times in 30 games, however, is anything but luck. Based on his numbers at the moment, Martinez is seven times more likely to get a hit than to strike out.
“That’s how many times he’s struck out?” 22-year-old third baseman Nick Castellanos said. “That’s incredible. I think I’ve struck out five times the past two games. Also, man, it doesn’t really surprise me. He’s a special talent. It’s not really a secret.”
Castellanos did not hesitate when asked if perhaps Martinez is underrated nationally because he happens to play with Cabrera and in general on a team that collectively hits well.
“Absolutely,” Castellanos said. “ESPN and the media in general, for that matter, love home runs. They love the long ball. And up until now, in the past, Victor really hasn’t hit too many home runs, but he’s a tremendous hitter, and he’s a good run-producer. Sometimes the big RBI single will get overlooked because somebody in the ball game hit a solo home run, but bottom line is that they both produced an RBI. I think Victor is definitely sometimes [underrated] just when we had Prince here in the past and Miguel, so I can say that.”
Castellanos is wowed not just by Martinez’s talent but also by how he prepares.
“He works hard every day, from when he starts doing tee work in the morning to when he watches video to how he studies pitchers to how he has his mechanics down to such a science from both sides of the plate, which is even more incredible,” Castellanos said. “It’s just fun to watch. During the game they had a side-by-side playing on the scoreboard after he hit his home run, I think in the fourth inning. It’s amazing how much of a mirror image he is from the left and right side of the plate.”
Martinez’s penchant for big hits on 0-2 counts – including 12 career homers on 0-2 counts – has made an impression on many.
“Victor’s one of the very few hitters in baseball where I don’t think he really cares what the count is,” Castellanos said. “I don’t think he cares whether it’s 3-0 or [0-2]. He’s still probably up there doing one thing, and that’s looking for a pitch that he wants to hit, and if it’s not there, he either fouls it off or lets it go. So Victor’s fun to watch. He’s a professional. He’s as professional as a hitter can possibly be. Just a privilege to watch him every day.”
Though Martinez attributes the slew of homers to luck, he does recommend part of his routine for all the team’s hitters.
“I always tell them we have the [resource] here, you have the video room, you can go out there and study a pitcher and have an idea how he’s going to attack right-handed, left-handed, so you’re going to the plate with an idea of what the pitcher likes, what he’s doing in this situation and his current position and all that,” Martinez said. “It’s out there. You just have to go get it.”