February 25, 2013 at 11:30 am

Lynn Henning

Tigers know what was missing in 2012: Victor Martinez

Lakeland, Fla. -- Not even Victor Martinez could have known what Victor Martinez and the Tigers were getting when a skilled hitter and a needy team were reunited ahead of spring camp.

It wasn't blasphemy to wonder if the guy they call V-Mart might be creaky from a year layoff and a 34th birthday. Science tells us that hitters begin to lose their optimum skills at age 29. Toss five years and a shredded knee onto the Martinez actuarial and Detroit might have been stuck with a dusty version of a lustrous switch-hitter and his .303 career batting average.

But here was Martinez stepping to the plate Sunday against Phillies starter Roy Halladay. And here was Halladay a few moments later, in company with 6,243 customers at Joker Marchant Stadium, watching after Martinez sent a Halladay pitch on a 410-foot-plus rocket ride beyond the deep right-center field fence.

Martinez had two more at-bats good for a pair of sharp singles in the 10-inning, 5-5 draw. Each of his hits all but blared that a man batting .571 in three spring games is about where he was the last time he saw major league pitching, in October 2011, three months before ripping up his left knee.

"I think it's a little early," manager Jim Leyland said after the game. "I wouldn't be worried if he wasn't hitting, and I'm not jumping over the moon because he is.

"But he's swinging pretty good right now."

Martinez had pretty much the same view as he sat in front of his locker afterward.

"It's still spring training," he said as he shed his uniform, unveiling a brace wrapped around the knee. "The pitchers are working on their stuff. The hitters are working on stuff.

"But I definitely feel great. I'm very pleased. I'm doing everything pretty normal."

A huge void

Martinez spent 2012 healing from microfracture surgery on a knee that blew apart during a winter workout near his home in Orlando, Fla. He was just as busy ministering to a psyche that might have been the bigger casualty.

For a player with pride and passion, Martinez's season away from baseball was like a year in the state penitentiary. It was every bit as tough on the Tigers. They lost their No. 5 batter in Leyland's lineup, a switch-hitter whose savvy had been worth 112 RBIs in 2012. The Tigers coughed up a slew of well-pitched games in 2012 in great part because runs were abandoned that a year earlier Martinez had pushed home.

The Tigers paid a secondary price in losing Martinez. They never knew where to turn as the season got long and their frustrations rose. The White Sox were in first place. The Tigers were in a funk.

It was during those stop-and-start weeks in 2012, before they put things together in September, that you could nod to the fans' favorite term: "chemistry."

Halfway through the 2011 season, his first in Detroit, Martinez assumed a role he never sought. He was the tribal chief. The term is loose, as is "chemistry," but his leadership was pronounced.

A major addition

In essence, Martinez had become the man other Tigers players leaned against.

It was a matter of depth and style, all consecrated by Martinez's talents and his ethic. Teammates saw this seasoned, serious man as the embodiment of a professional baseball player. They did not wish to disappoint him. Tacitly, they wanted his approval.

It takes a considerable amount of soul to be that kind of player and leader. But a man and his makeup could be discerned from Friday's scene at Disney, ahead of the Tigers-Braves game.

"I ran to center field and I looked up at the sky," Martinez said, still savoring those moments during batting practice, his first game in 16 months. "I was looking to God. I said thanks for giving me the spirit to work all year long.

"It was a long, long time."

It has taken a short time — just three games in Florida — to appreciate what Martinez could mean to Leyland, his lineup, and Detroit's clubhouse in 2013. The Tigers have welcomed him back — with hugs, and with hope they don't disappoint a man they thoroughly respect.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

twitter.com@Lynn_Henning

Tigers DH Victor Martinez launches a solo home run in the second inning against the Phillies Sunday at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Fla. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News
See Also