Niyo: Victor Martinez not going down without a fight

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — Victor Martinez says he doesn’t listen to the criticism. But that doesn’t mean he’s oblivious to it.

“I didn’t hear it, but I know,” he said, sitting contently in front of his locker after the Tigers’ 6-5 victory over Baltimore on Thursday at Comerica Park. “I’ve been playing this game for a little bit.”

And a little bit goes a long way when you’re a veteran like Martinez, the Tigers’ 38-year-old designated hitter.

But particularly on days like these, when a talented, young pitcher like the Orioles’ Dylan Bundy is struggling to find the strike zone and the 30-mph wind gusts are whipping the flags in the outfield. Martinez, a career .300 hitter with 1,100 RBIs, understands when opportunity knocks in this game, you’d better have an answer.

Then again, the mammoth go-ahead home run Martinez hit in the fifth inning Thursday wasn’t exactly a wind-aided shot. It was hit almost into the teeth of the wind in right-center field, a 420-foot shot on a first-pitch fastball that Bundy, who came in with a 5-1 record and a 2.26 ERA, left over the middle of the plate.

“I’m glad that ball got out,” Martinez said, smiling. “I hit that ball pretty good.”

But the better news for the Tigers is he’s doing that pretty regularly now. After a sluggish first month of the season, Martinez finally is starting to heat up along with the weather.

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Martinez ended April hitting .218, with a paltry .276 slugging percentage, the kind of numbers even a No. 9 hitter would regret. But that wasn’t enough to convince manager Brad Ausmus to make a change in the lineup, dropping him out of the cleanup spot. And now that patience is starting to pay off — or at least seem a little more plausible — as Martinez is hitting .360 in May with a .580 slugging percentage and a 1.021 OPS. Thursday’s homer was just his third of the season, but it’s the fifth extra-base hit in the last six games for Martinez.

“We needed him to get hot,” said Ausmus, who prefers to keep that switch-hitting option near the top of his righty-dominated lineup. “He was obviously struggling early, and it slowly came around. Now he’s actually driving the ball. He has hit a few home runs here lately, and he’s hitting balls in the gaps — even some of the outs are deep center field. So he’s getting his lower half involved and he’s driving it.”

That doesn’t always produce results, of course. Especially in cavernous Comerica Park, a home that isn’t all that adored by Martinez. The 14-year veteran lets his frustrations with the dimensions be known from time to time, and Thursday afternoon was another of those times.

Asked if hitting more fly balls lately played a part in his resurgence, Martinez playfully scoffed, “Hitting in this ballpark, it doesn’t help me at all, getting the ball up in the air. This (expletive) ballpark is too (expletive) big. At least for me.”

And for him, this talk of early-season struggles probably strikes a similar nerve, though Martinez insists he doesn’t let it bother him, all the questions and concerns about his place in the middle of the lineup or his production in the middle of that contract extension.

(The Tigers are paying him $18 million this season and next.)

Martinez had a bounce-back year of sorts in 2016, but his power numbers dipped after the All-Star break and his plodding baserunning grew even more painful to watch. Then he underwent hernia surgery in October. And that only added to the doubts amid his slow start this spring.

But while Martinez claims there’s nothing different about the way he’s swinging the bat the last few weeks — “A little more luck, finding holes — that’s it,” he says — even his manager seems to disagree, along with the rest of us. To be fair, his batting average on balls put in play in April was an unsustainably-low .250. In May, his BABIP is .381. As always, the truth probably lies somewhere in between.

Regardless, as Martinez said Thursday, “You don’t get paid just to put a good swing and hit the ball right at people. Right at people, that doesn’t count. Everybody wants results, right? ...

“But at the end of the day, if you’re hitting .150 or .180, people are gonna say you’re struggling: ‘Move him down (in the order), this and that.’ ”

That’s what they’ve been saying, all right. And he knows it, whether he’s heard it or not.

But for Martinez, who was headed home to Florida on paternity leave after the game, to be with his wife, Margret, who was expected to give birth to their fourth child — and third daughter — today, all he can do is keep at it.

“I can control what I can control,” said Martinez, who plans to rejoin his teammates Monday in Houston for an 11-game road trip.

“And what I can control is, go out there and be a tough out, put good at-bats together and whatever happens, happens.”

And if keeps happening like this, well, he said, “Let’s just try to keep it that way for as long as we can.”