St. Petersburg, Fla. — There was this sigh, this weary smile, which told you J.D. Martinez had been down this road. Way too often.
Standing in front of a locker row at the back of the visitor’s clubhouse at Tropicana Field, Martinez was asked Wednesday about a target date for his long-awaited return to manager Brad Ausmus’ lineup.
What would he — he — select as a calendar entry for his first regular-season at-bat in 2017?
“I’m done with that,” Martinez said in a tone that sounded like pure exhaustion. “I’ve been asking every doctor: ‘If you were a gambling man, and you have to pick a day …’
“And no one’s saying a thing. I’m giving up on picking a date.”
Who can blame him? He sprained his right foot March 18 during a Grapefruit League game at Publix Field and hasn’t played in a game since.
Original projections were, of course, too optimistic: two to three weeks.
Saturday will mark five weeks since he dived for a ball in right field and rolled over the foot. It now looks as if early May will be the earliest he can reunite with a batting order that misses that near .900-level OPS he has brought to Ausmus’ lineup since coming to Detroit three years ago.
Martinez at least was with his teammates Wednesday as the Tigers tuned up for an evening game against the Rays. He was to take batting practice after having spent much of the past month at the team’s rehabilitation headquarters at the Tigertown complex in Lakeland, 50 miles from Tropicana Field.
He has been swinging in batting cages and wasn’t expecting any dramatic progress during Wednesday’s on-field session. The greater test comes Friday when Martinez will be asked to run in semi-stressful ways on a baseball field.
It’s the running part of his job he must handle, minus issue, before the Tigers can put him on a concentrated rehab program that moves him closer to joining the team.
He has been doing fine on the AlterG anti-gravity treadmill. He has been taking his hydro-therapy baths. He has been working from early in the morning until near-evening every day, hoping to overcome what he had thought was a simple “five-day” setback.
“Boy, was I wrong,” Martinez said with a snort.
The great strain, he said, has been psychological. He wants to play baseball. His team is working, and for the most part, has been winning minus an important mid-order slugger.
It’s killing him. He can’t help but notice how this shelving differs from the six weeks he missed last summer with a fractured elbow.
“It’s probably harder now,” said Martinez, whose three years in Detroit have seen him play 401 games, with 83 home runs, a .299 batting average, and .898 OPS. “You train all offseason, you’re building anticipation, you want to play on Opening Day, everyone’s excited, there’s a buzz, and it’s kind of like going to the playoffs and you can’t be there.”
Unless he reinjures his foot, Martinez is, assuredly, getting closer to a Comerica Park reunion. The plan once he can run at a necessary level — Friday could be his clearance there — is for Martinez to return to Lakeland for heavy at-bats during Extended Spring Training games.
Those are games in which young Tigers prospects who aren’t yet playing at Toledo, Erie, Lakeland, or West Michigan, compete against themselves or against other nearby minor-league teams.
“You can get bulk loads,” said Martinez. “With split-squad games, you can get 18 at-bats in one day.”
After he has worn out the competition there, Martinez will graduate to one of the Tigers’ farm stops for rehearsals against higher-level pitchers. And from there it should be a fast return to the Tigers clubhouse.
He is ready.
“It’s hard,” Martinez said as he got ready for batting practice, “when you can’t do what you love.”