Outfielder J.D. Martinez has 12 home runs in his first 49 games with the Tigers. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)
Detroit — Even after a hot hitting streak, it’s tough for a hitter to feel comfortable in the starting lineup. In the case of Tigers outfielder J.D. Martinez, it’s all about getting a comfort level — and that’s coming with a consistent string of starts and some impressive power numbers.
After signing as a free agent in the offseason, Martinez is forcing Tigers manager Brad Ausmus to keep him in the lineup with a recent power surge. He started the season as a reserve but has come on in the past month, playing in all 24 games since breaking into the starting lineup on June 12.
In his first 16 games, he had just 10 starts and batted .250 (11-for-44) with three doubles, three home runs and eight RBIs. In the 23 games before Sunday’s game, he hit .378 (34-for-90) with 10 doubles, eight home runs and 23 RBIs.
Despite going 1-for-4 on Sunday’s loss to the Tampa Bay Rays, Martinez did hit a solo homer in the ninth inning, his 12th of the season.
After he batted toward the bottom of the order for much of the early part of the season, the recent surge has made J.D. Martinez a welcome addition to the middle of the order, especially with designated hitter Victor Martinez out because of side soreness for five games this week. In Victor’s absence, J.D. has moved into the cleanup spot and held his own, with two home runs in four games.
“I’m trying to get a ball over the plate and hit it up the middle,” Martinez said Sunday. “That’s really been my approach.”
On Saturday he tied his career best with 11 home runs in just 48 games, matching his total in 113 games in 2012 with the Astros.
If he keeps hitting at the clip he has in this stretch, he’ll make a case for staying in the lineup for the remainder of the season — and possibly beyond, as a more permanent fixture in the Tigers outfield.
“I hope he stays hot the rest of the year. The truth is that most guys who go through a hot streak eventually cool down; the good hitters heat up again,” Ausmus said. “That happens a number of times during the course of the season. He’s been swinging the bat well now for a couple of weeks. As far as I’m concerned, he could swing the bat well through the end of the season.”
But it’s not just the power numbers that have Ausmus optimistic about Martinez’s outlook; it’s the average and solid contact over a sustained period that have helped the Tigers to a 15-9 record in the recent stretch of games since he’s been a regular starter.
“The good hitters are the ones who get hot, cool off, get hot again for a stretch and it happens three or four times over the course of a season,” Ausmus said. “The hot streaks outweigh the cold streaks by a lot.”
As J.D. Martinez has developed, he’s supplanted the regular outfield rotation of Rajai Davis, Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter. Since Victor Martinez’s injury this week, though, all four have been able to play, with either J.D. Martinez or Hunter at designated hitter.
That’s no consolation for Ausmus, who would prefer to have his lineup at full strength and juggle the other hitters as necessary.
“I’d rather have the problem of getting those four guys playing time and have Victor in the lineup,” Ausmus said. “As a result of Victor not being able to play, those four guys do get to play. I’d rather have Vic in the lineup, all things being equal.”
Hunter, an 18-year veteran in the majors, has taken the opportunity to mentor Martinez, along with Austin Jackson. Their lockers are all in a row in a corner of the clubhouse, which helps with sharing thoughts and ideas.
“We talk all the time. That’s one thing he does — ask a lot of questions — and I’m here to give it to him,” Hunter said. “We talk every day; we watch video together to try to figure out pitches.
“He’s a great hitter; he goes out every day and prepares himself and takes it into the game. The results you see are from hard work and he’s getting it done.”