Cleveland — April offered a first clue. June has furthered suspicions there might be something, after all, to the intriguing case of J.D. Martinez, whose name is colorful and whose bat has turned into a nuclear warhead.
Martinez had a single to center in the second, slammed a double against the center-field fence in the sixth, and for his final act rammed a 95-mph John Axford fastball into the right-field seats for a three-run homer in the eighth inning of a game the Tigers won, 6-4, over the Indians at Progressive Field.
Martinez, who was signed by the Tigers in March after he was cut by the Astros, is batting .317 in 34 games since joining Detroit in April. He has four home runs in his last five games. He has 20 RBIs in his last 20 games.
And he is steadily pushing someone — whether it ends up as Torii Hunter, Rajai Davis, or the rehabilitating Andy Dirks — out of a job in the Tigers outfield the way Martinez is slugging.
A case could be made that, at age 26, Martinez and his heavy swing have simply aligned. He is 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds. And it might be remembered that he earned a ticket to Detroit after hitting 10 homers in 17 games at Triple A Toledo.
Maybe the explanation is simple: It’s Martinez’s year.
“Kind of hard to say that, it’s still so early,” Martinez said Friday night in the Tigers clubhouse following his three-hit barrage, which was part of a 12-hit night for manager Brad Ausmus’ team.
“If we’re having the same conversation in August, maybe I’ll be able to agree.”
Martinez had been on the fringe for most of the eight weeks he has been in Detroit. But he had shown that team-pleasing virtue, power, even in his bit roles as a fill-in or as a pinch-hitter. And when Hunter went down at the start of the week with a bad hamstring, Martinez was about to get more regular work.
And, with regular at-bats have come regular homers and extra-base hits.
“Absolutely, it’s huge, a big difference,” Martinez said of the steady at-bats and regular looks at big-league pitching he gained in recent days. “You’re not as concerned about one swing. Your timing’s better.
“Before, I had to wait more on pitches to make sure I saw the ball.”
He’s seeing it quite nicely these days. And he is thrilling a Tigers front office, which tends to pull the occasional minor-league free agent from the bargain bin, helped in part by an endorsement from Tigers third-base coach Dave Clark, who knew Martinez during their days at Houston.
So far, the scouting reports are solid, as is an outfielder’s swing. A team looking desperately for another fence-rattler has, at least temporarily, found its man.