By: Will Burchfield
Victor Martinez leaned back in the chair in front of his locker, looked up to a swarm of reporters and smiled.
“Let’s talk about the bunt!” he said.
Indeed — let’s.
Still trying to work his way out of an early-season slump, Martinez laid down the first bunt single of his career on Monday night in the Tigers 7-1 win over the Indians. It was significant not just from a historical perspective, but a strategic one.
“I saw (third baseman) Jose Ramirez playing way over at shortstop and I thought to myself, if I put it there I’ll be safe,” Martinez explained.
Martinez would come around to score after a Justin Upton double and an Alex Avila single, proving the value of taking what the defense gives him. Even in the cleanup spot, bunting for a base hit can be productive.
“That’s really the one time you want him to do it, leading off an inning,” said Brad Ausmus. “When you have a little bit of a lead, you can tack on. He can be the first base-runner of the inning and it worked out that way with Upton’s double and Alex’s single.”
Martinez beat the shift again in the eighth inning by poking a ground ball into right field, his third hit of the game. He also stroked an RBI double into the right-center field gap in the third. It will take more than that to force teams to play him with a more conventional defensive alignment, but the recent signs are promising either way.
“He kind of looks like he did the last couple years where he’s hitting the ball all over the field. I think he got in a little bit of a pull mode for a while,” Ausmus said. “Now, he’s hitting the ball where they’re pitching him. What they’re giving him he’s taking advantage of. I thought a couple days ago he was starting to turn the corner and I firmly expect that you’re going to see Victor Martinez swing the bat a lot better.”
Martinez, who’s hitting .239 with one home run and 13 RBI through 24 games, would agree.
“I think I’ve been having good at-bats and good swings, it’s just a matter of finding holes. It’s tough, you can’t control what happens after you hit the baseball. So that’s what I tell (my teammates) — just focus on what we can control, go out there and put good at-bats together. Just trying to be a tough out.”
The shift that teams generally employ versus Martinez is designed to take that ability away from him. That’s the beauty of the bunt. It puts the power, ironically so, back in V-Mart’s hands.
“I don’t care how they play me, that doesn’t affect my approach. I’m honestly just trying to hit the ball where it’s pitched,” Martinez said.
But if Martinez keeps on hitting against the shift, keeps on getting on base, keeps on sparking rallies, teams will have to adjust. It might not happen overnight, but eventually they’ll have no choice.
“Hopefully guys will stop shifting him,” said James McCann. “They got to. He can bunt it over there, he can hit it over there, he’s a professional hitter. When he does stuff like that it’s special.”
For all the big moments in V-Mart’s career, all the pressure-packed at-bats, a bunt single stood out on a Monday night in May.
“It was a lot of fun,” he smiled, “finally I got to put one down — first one of my career. Little scared, though. I really decided when (Trevor) Bauer was starting his windup. I was like, ‘Ahh, I’m going for it.’ My heart was like, ‘Boom, boom, boom.’”
When he reached first base, Martinez looked back to the Tigers dugout, where his teammates were high-fiving and smiling and pumping their fists.
“I don’t think any one saw it coming,” said McCann, “but, hey, all the more power to him.”