July 18, 2014 at 11:47 pm

John Niyo

Tigers hold their breath as Victor Martinez rejoins lineup

Detroit — Brad Ausmus says he's holding his breath — well, kind of — and hoping nothing bad happens when Victor Martinez swings.

If it makes him feel any better, Terry Francona says he's doing much the same thing over in the visitors' dugout at Comerica Park, where the Tigers lost to the Indians, 9-3, to begin the season's unofficial second half Friday night.

Ausmus has his fingers crossed that Martinez, idled by a strained oblique the past few weeks, doesn't get hurt again. After going without his cleanup hitter in 11 of the 13 games before the All-Star break, and understanding just how valuable he is in the middle of this lineup, the Tigers' manager knows he can't afford a repeat.

"You kind of hold your breath with this type of injury," he said

Francona, the Indians' manager, admitted to a little wishful thinking of his own as he sat in the dugout before the game.

"I guess we're hoping there'll be some rust," he said of Martinez, who played for Francona in Boston in 2009-10 and quickly became one of his favorite players. "That's maybe a reach."

Maybe. His first at-bat Friday ended in a rare strikeout for Martinez — only his 24th of the season. (For Cleveland's Trevor Bauer, that's twice he has gotten him swinging — most of any pitcher in the league.)

But his second at-bat, leading off the fourth, saw him line a 1-2 pitch past the over-shifted infield for a single to right. (Martinez leads all qualified MLB hitters with a .327 average on two-strike counts.) And after J.D. Martinez singled, Victor Martinez scored the Tigers' second run of the night on Torii Hunter's double to the right-field corner.

"We've had our troubles getting through the middle of the order without getting nicked up," Francona had said earlier. "And he's a big part of that."

The great protector

Martinez, who spent his first seven seasons in Cleveland, leads all active major leaguers with a .362 career average against the Indians. And after another 2-for-4 night Friday, he's 12-for-34 (.352) with four home runs and a .764 slugging percentage. He'd also been walked eight times — five of them intentionally.

And in another reminder of just how this whole thing has come full circle, Francona was telling reporters the same thing about Martinez he'd told former Tigers manager Jim Leyland, who also was at the ballpark Friday, countless times the past few years.

"He's probably the perfect protection for Miggy," Francona said.

That was the original idea, of course, when the Tigers signed him as a free agent prior to the 2011 season. The Prince Fielder signing the following winter was an insurance policy ownership decided to take out after Martinez was lost for the season to a torn knee ligament. And now that they've finally unloaded the bulk of Fielder's contract, they're back to where they started this run of division titles and title contention, with Martinez in the middle of it all.

"He can go get a ball," Francona said. "When Victor's going good, he can hit one from his shoe tops to his ears. It makes you nervous."

Which is what made the Tigers so nervous before the All-Star break, when he could barely tie his shoes without feeling a twinge in his torso.

Ausmus has just two left-handed bats in his regular lineup — the switch-hitting Martinez and catcher Alex Avila. And with Andy Dirks' injury rehabilitation assignment on hold for the moment, there's no telling when, or if, they might add another.

Martinez missed three games after straining his oblique muscle June 29 against Houston. Then he aggravated the injury in his second game back in the lineup, "and that one I wasn't able to do anything — not even run," he said.

So he sat, and sat some more, missing the final eight games before heading to Minneapolis as a spectator for his fifth All-Star game.

"I'd rather be sure that I was going to be able to be 100 percent to finish out the season strong," he said.

Backing off

It helped that the Tigers went 8-3 as the offense erupted in the games he missed, plating 41 runs in a five-game win streak.

"It was fun, and at the same time it makes you (feel) a little desperate," Martinez said. "You want to be a part of it. I always want to be part of a winning team. But it was a lot of fun to watch what they did."

Martinez said he didn't swing a bat for about a week, which for him felt like an eternity.

"He swings the bat nonstop," Ausmus said. "He hits in between at-bats when he's the DH. He hits before batting practice. He hits after batting practice. So we've told him to back off a little bit and watch the workload. …

"He gets it. He doesn't want to back off. But he understands why."

So does Francona, for that matter.

"He's a really good hitter and he's having a really good year," the Indians' manager said. "That's a tough combination for us."

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Victor Martinez connects for a single in the fourth inning Friday. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News