The revival of Russell MartinAn 0-for-30 streak behind him, Yankees catcher wants to finish strong
It’s Martin’s numbers, though, that buckled both player and manager before the All-Star break, and was the impetus behind a private conversation during the Yankees’ four-game set in Boston. Martin wasn’t just making outs. His at-bats were meek and the frustration was mounting, such is life when enduring an 0-for-30 slump and a batting average below the Mendoza line. Based on the facts, many were anticipating Girardi to pinch-hit for Martin in the eighth inning Friday night against the Angels. Mark Teixeira’s three-run home run had tied the game at five and the Yankees subsequently had two runners on following two outs, a walk and an intentional pass.
Martin had been slumping – badly – so he was aware of the possibility that his manager may repeat what he did in Boston when he sat Martin for pinch-hitter Alex Rodriguez, leaving Martin on the bench tearing up a towel in disgust. About 45 minutes after Girardi stood prone and mum, and Martin rewarded his faith with an opposite-field bloop single for the game’s winning run, he navigated through the waiting media, laughing and exhaling as if King Kong was evicted. Before the questions started, Martin had a request of his own.
“I want to know how many of you guys would have pinch hit for me right there,” Martin said.
Responded a reporter: “Would you pinch-hit for yourself?” Martin’s reply: “Hell no!”
Martin admitted he would have understood if Girardi had signaled for Eric Chavez to hit against Angels right-hander Kevin Jepsen in lieu of someone hitting below .180. Girardi, though, was happy with Martin’s prior swings, pleased with how he responded to the Boston conversation by putting in extra work with hitting coach Kevin Long.
And for the first time for what felt like an eternity, Martin finally enjoyed himself and was a part of something during what’s been the most trying season of his six-career year, one that just might cost the pending free agent big bucks once he hits the open market.
Martin simply wasn’t having any fun. And neither was Girardi watching some discouraging body language. Though Martin explained that the towel incident was more about the Yankees giving up late runs then getting pinch-hit by A-Rod, Girardi had seen enough. It was time for a private conversation to deliver a message and help Martin re-center and re-focus, essentially telling him, “You’re better than this.”
“I’m sure some of his patience was starting to wear thin a little bit, and that’s probably why we had that talk,” Martin said. “But nobody was getting more frustrated than myself. You try and keep your defense separate from your offense, but when you’re not hitting it’s not as fun to play the game.”
To further emphasize his point, Girardi sat Martin for the series finale at Fenway Park, granting him five full days to re-charge back in Montreal.
“I thought it was important for him just to reflect on some things, just to give him a bit of a head start of putting it behind him,” Girardi said. “We talked about [how] at the start of the second half, it starts all over. I always talk about how players want to feel like they’re contributing.”
Martin responded with Friday’s biggest hit – and also showed he’s capable of ruling his domain. After catching just two of the previous 26 would-be base stealers running on him, Martin gunned down two of the Angels’ four thieves and saved his finest defensive stand for the game’s biggest moment. Howie Kendrick’s one-out single in the ninth put the tying run on first base and Mike Scioscia summoned Maicer Izturis to pinch-hit for John Hester with two away.
Early in the at-bat, Rafael Soriano’s pitch got away from Martin and Kendrick took off for second. In one swift motion, Martin retrieved the ball, turned, planted his lead foot and fired to a covering Derek Jeter. The throw was true. Kendrick was tagged out. The Yankees completed their rally from down three runs. While pumping his fist and yelling in ecstasy, Martin let loose 30 at-bats’ worth of frustration. His clean slate had begun.
“It was a fun way to win the game,” Martin said. “I’ve never done that before.
“I definitely felt refreshed. I went back home to Montreal, hung out over there, I really didn’t think about baseball too much and spent some time with family. It always gets you back to where you need to be. You rest your body feels better and you feel more explosive. Mentally as well, you just kind of get away from the game it helps you relax instead of stressing about numbers and stuff.”
Teixeira, who drove in all five of the Yankees’ previous runs including the clutch homer that tied the game, was actually overshadowed by Martin busting loose. Attempting to recover from his own first-half difficulties (a .250 average while dealing with nerve damage on his vocal cords), Teixeira recorded his third game of at least five RBIs this season and his 36th career multi-home run game, yet following a win with the usual storylines and subplots, he was fixated on why Martin needed such a breakthrough.
“That last play,” Teixeira said with wonder, “not many guys can make that play, a ball kicking off that far and making a perfect throw. Russell’s been battling. Physically he’s been beat up. Probably more than anybody he needed those four days off and he looked great tonight."
Martin went 0-for-4 in Sunday’s loss that left his average at .178, but he knows his average is beyond salvaging. The mission is contributing to a team that owns baseball’s best record while finishing strong. “I don’t really care about the average at this point, just winning games,” Martin said. “If I can keep stringing a couple of big hits here and there, I’ll feel good.” Following Friday’s heroics, he felt jovial enough to joke with reporters huddled in front of his locker, bracing for more inevitable questions about 0-for-30.
“It was more mental, just beating myself up,” he said. “I was 0-for-30 at one point. Feels like you’re 0-for-half-the-season when you’re in that. You try not to think about it, but you’re kind of reminded of it every day. It’s kinda your jobs to do that. I never had an 0-for-30 and I hope it’s the last time.”
Little did Martin know he left an opening for a reporter to ask him if he remembered the last time he went 0-for-30. The group roared with laughter. The road to redemption remains long and hard, but for once Martin could afford to smile after telling a giant gorilla to take a hike.
Follow Jon Lane on Twitter: @JonLaneNYC
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