June 25, 2013 at 9:51 am

John Niyo

Tigers won't reach full potential until Victor Martinez starts hitting

Victor Martinez gave an indication of breaking out of a season-long slump whan he hit a grand slam Saturday against the Red Sox. (Elizabeth Conley/Detroit News)

Detroit — Three weeks shy of the All-Star break, the Tigers sit comfortably in first place in the American League Central, 10 games over .500 after taking three of four from the AL East-leading Boston Red Sox.

They lead the majors in hitting and on-base percentage. They rank second in runs scored and run differential. They’re fourth in slugging percentage. And yet to hear one of the Tigers’ veteran hitters talk, they’re nowhere close to redlining the engine.

“I don’t think all cylinders are clicking right now,” Torii Hunter said Sunday after a 7-5 victory over the Boston Red Sox at Comerica Park. “We’re getting by, we’re doing what we have to do, we’re in first place. That’s great. But I still feel like there’s something in there that’s gonna be terrifying.”

That’s probably a frightening prospect for American League pitching staffs. But it’s also the truth. And while “getting by” may be good enough in the Tigers’ mediocre division, the road’s about to get tougher with an 11-game trip to Tampa, Toronto and Cleveland looming before the break.

A return to form by the starting pitching certainly is expected — that’s four poor outings in their last six, including a pair from Justin Verlander. Another reliable arm in the bullpen — maybe two — certainly would help, too, though general manager Dave Dombrowski probably will wait until nearer to the July 31 trade deadline to make a move on that front.

But it’s not asking too much of a nine-man lineup that’s earning nearly $90 million this season to expect a little less idling time.

Perfect 10

Now that Austin Jackson is back from an extended stint on the disabled list — he’s 16-for-35 since returning, with a .537 on-base percentage — the table is set. And Miguel Cabrera continues to feast: The reigning AL MVP is on pace for 44 homers and 164 RBIs.

Prince Fielder does, too, though Sunday’s two-hit afternoon — including the winning two-run single in the eighth inning — did end a frustrating 2-for-23 stretch at the plate to start this current 10-game home stand.

“He’d been hitting some balls,” Hunter said of Fielder. “It’s just this ballpark kills his power, his strength. His strength is hitting balls to left-center and hitting ‘em hard. If this was any other ballpark, he’d have had three home runs this series.”

But it was the most recent 10-run outburst — Saturday’s rout of the Red Sox — that really showed the Tigers what they’ve been missing. A first-inning grand slam from Victor Martinez set the tone, and showed that the potential for this lineup to truly terrorize opposing pitching depends greatly on the man in the very middle of the lineup.

Martinez, who missed all of last season recovering from a torn ACL, has yet to find a comfortable groove at the plate this season as the Tigers’ full-time designated hitter.

A career .300 hitter, he’s batting just .227 — .211 vs. right-handed pitching, .235 against lefties — with a meager .285 on-base percentage and .622 OPS. And since a three-week span in late May and early June when he first appeared to be breaking out of his funk, he has found new levels of frustration.

In his last 15 games, Martinez is hitting .170 (9-for-53) with nearly as many double-play ground-outs (seven) as runs driven in (eight), even after Saturday’s five-RBI night. It’s not for a lack of trying, or an absolute dearth of quality contact — his hard-luck .233 batting average on balls in play is a testament to that. (“I’m not going to lie,” Martinez said. “I’ve hit some great balls that got caught.”)

Frustration

But whatever the reasons, they’ve grown tiresome. And you could see it in Martinez’s reaction after his last at-bat Sunday — a double-play ball that ended the eighth inning just after Fielder’s go-ahead single. Martinez, robbed twice by third baseman Jose Iglesias earlier in the game, slammed his helmet after crossing the bag at first and then angrily shed his protective gear, capping an 0-for-5 afternoon. Two years ago, he hit .404 with runners on base. This season, he’s hitting .212.

Still, there are some positive signs. Martinez isn’t chasing as many bad pitches lately, his swing mechanics and timing look better, he’s walking more — seven in his last nine games — and Sunday, in just his fourth game in the field all season, he even chipped in with a stellar diving defensive play to rob Boston’s Jacoby Ellsbury.

The key, though, is Martinez chiming in with more of the timely hits to extend rallies — “That stretches our lineup even more, particularly with the two big guys in front of him,” Leyland said — and filling the gap between All-Stars as he bats ahead of Jhonny Peralta. (If Andy Dirks can get hot as well — six hits in his last four games — that’s another huge lift.)

The Tigers aren’t a team built to manufacture runs — why Leyland insists on bunting at all some nights is a mystery to many — and they’re not a team that can bank on the bullpen winning too many one-run games at the moment. (It doesn’t help that they’re the second-worst team in baseball when it comes to producing runs late in games this season.)

“We are what we are,” Leyland said. “We hit in the gap, we hit it over the fence, and we pitch good. When we do that, we have a good chance to win.”

And when Martinez gets going, he’ll like their chances even better.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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