Henning: For Tigers, V-Mart, there's no easy answer

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Detroit — Very late Monday night, after the Tigers had lost to the Brewers, 3-2, at Comerica Park, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch was seen walking into the office of Tigers manager Brad Ausmus.

Dave Dombrowski arrived moments later. Ausmus joined in after a short, tense, somewhat somber postgame news conference had wrapped up.

At issue is what the Tigers can or will do with Victor Martinez. His mended left knee is still sore following February surgery. It has robbed him of his left-handed bat and any mobility on the basepaths, either of which was enough to hand the Tigers a crusher of a loss Monday.

It is not a simple, linear decision, confronting Martinez's lingering pain and how to live with or without his bat in the middle of Ausmus' lineup.

Or, perhaps the Tigers audience discerned as much during a manager's postgame remarks.

Asked if he had mulled pinch-hitting for Martinez in the eighth inning, before a weak ground ball and hobbled sprint to first became a deadly double play, Ausmus said, no, it wasn't a consideration, "because part of baseball is understanding humans. We need Victor Martinez for the entire season."

All the manager could allow was: "I think we're going to at least talk about other options. But we'll do that privately."

In fact, closed-door conversations were about to begin, from all appearances, as quickly as Ausmus left the interview room.

A tough spot

What precisely the Tigers can do in facing this medical melodrama, which probably hurts them more than has the loss of Justin Verlander from their pitching rotation, is, again, complex.

Popular sentiment is that the Tigers should put Martinez on the disabled list for two or three weeks and bring him back when he has healed.

That's appealing. Except for one detail: The Tigers have said short-term rest isn't likely to accomplish much. A prolonged shutdown is probably the better answer, but that could mean the All-Star break or longer.

Martinez, whose voice is persuasive, isn't interested in being shelved if he and the doctors believe there's a shot at his knee holding up. That, to date, has been the verdict.

In fact, the Tigers and their medical corps were convinced Martinez would steadily heal and the soreness would recede. As late as 10 days ago, in Kansas City, the timetable was spot-on. He was getting better, swinging better, with his left side catching up with a right-handed swing that, typical of Martinez's ways, has been smoking for most of the spring.

But last week against the Twins it was clear Martinez was all but disabled in trying to bat left-handed. The next day he began a four-day vacation, aided by a weekend interleague series at St. Louis that barred the Tigers from using a designated hitter, who happens to be V-Mart.

Monday night's game and Martinez's four trips to the plate probably ended any denial on the part of a team or its hobbled DH. He popped to shortstop and he hit three ground balls, one of which became that game-collapsing, eighth-inning double play.

As lethal as were four soft at-bats from a hitter of his majesty was his baserunning. After a two-out triple by Miguel Cabrera in the third, Martinez slapped a high-hopping ground ball that Brewers third baseman Elian Herrera snagged as he moved hard to his right across the chalk line.

Herrera could only jump-throw a toss to first base. Not many players, if any, in the big leagues would have failed to beat the throw to first. But it nailed Martinez (replays confirmed the call) and the Tigers said goodbye to a huge run.

'A good question'

What's clear and has been for at least a week is that the Tigers can't continue losing games because of a man's double deficiencies. They might well have decided as much during their 11th-hour session Monday.

As he stood speaking softly in front of his locker late Monday, Martinez sounded as if he's finally inclined to agree.

Asked if he worried he might be hurting his team, Martinez pursed his lips, paused, and said:

"I don't know. That's a good question. A good question."

He spoke, too, of his disinterest in batting right-handed against right-handed pitching. Ausmus had asked him to consider it, given his whopping numbers right-handed and his abysmal output from the left side.

A lifetime switch-hitter has his reasons for saying no. Rarely has he experienced a straight match-up in professional baseball. He isn't sure how he would react to a tight pitch, a dangerous pitch, in a right-hand versus right-hand situation.

It's easy for fans to snort at his reticence. But big-league hitters know what he's talking about.

So do the Tigers, who are showing their clubhouse tribal chief deference and respect.

They also know they're in a bind, either way.

The Tigers have no attractive options should Martinez head for the disabled list. A team already seriously low on left-hand bats has few options in the system.

Daniel Fields? Tyler Collins? Xavier Avery? Steven Moya, who has missed much of the spring with foot ills?

They aren't the answer any more than hiding Martinez deeper in the lineup will solve this crisis.

A hitter knows his team's plight. He shares in it.

"I always say I'm willing to do whatever is best for the team," Martinez said, in a voice that could best be described as forlorn.

That's the hang-up here. There is no "best" in deciding what to do about a struggling, compromised designated hitter.

In fact, deciding what's best might prove to be the worst for a team that, as Ausmus said, needs Victor Martinez for the entire season.