Minneapolis — He swung as usual. This time, it was a full swipe at a 92-mph fastball from Glen Perkins, the Twins reliever who treats Tigers batters about the way Joe Nathan did in previous years when Nathan was a shutdown Minnesota closer.
J.D. Martinez caught the pitch squarely. And away it went, on a high arc toward right field. Martinez’s right arm stretched upward, triumphantly, even before the ball landed a few feet into the 20-foot-high balcony for a three-run homer that put the Tigers on top of the Twins, 3-2, on Wednesday night at Target Field.
How he had been so sure from the moment he struck Perkins’ pitch that it was a home run was part of Wednesday night’s intrigue.
“I got it,” Martinez said Wednesday, inside the Tigers clubhouse at Target Field where the team was prepping for a night game against the Twins.
But he admitted Wednesday the homer wasn’t as automatic as he had thought when it left his bat.
“All the guys said the breeze here blows in from right field,” he said. “The way it started, it was going to go way over the ledge, but then it kept tailing, and tailing. But I knew it would at least be off the wall (balcony façade.)”
Martinez’s blast became his 23rd home run this season and eighth he has slammed in the ninth inning of a game since he joined the Tigers last spring.
The problem, of course, is the Tigers didn’t win. Martinez’s homer, which because of the score and the two-out situation had the capacity in Tigers lore to be one of those long-remembered blasts, held up for only a half-inning.
Ironically, Nathan, who now is the Tigers closer, couldn’t handle his old team in the bottom half of the ninth. Helped by Ezequiel Carrera’s defensive gaffe in center field, the Twins scored twice against Nathan and won 4-3.
“It was almost like a meaningless home run,” Martinez said Wednesday, sitting in front of his locker an hour before batting practice.
And yet it wasn’t irrelevant, not by any measure. It had, at the moment, been a classic example of performance under pressure, particularly against a closer as routinely merciless as Perkins.
“In the ninth inning of a game, against the nastiest pitcher in their bullpen, you’re not supposed to do that,” said Martinez, 27, who came to the Tigers in March after the Astros, for reasons only they know, released Martinez. “Especially against Perkins. His fastball is unique. And it had been beating me all year.”
In his ability to hit game-changing homers at a game’s most pressurized moment, Martinez is reminiscent of Kirk Gibson, the Tigers slugger of the 1980s who lived for ninth-inning dramatics, both in Detroit and later with the Dodgers.
Martinez says psychological tricks aren’t part of his last at-bat mindset. He isn’t into self-hypnosis. He doesn’t channel super heroes or adopt home-plate mantras. But it is striking that his eight homers in the ninth are tied for second place, with Alex Rodriguez, as the most ninth-inning homers hit in a single season by an individual hitter.
Tony Batista, playing for the Blue Jays in 2000, has the modern-day record with 10.
Martinez can’t explain it other than his power is showing up, randomly and disproportionately, in the ninth.
“I don’t know, the way I look at it, I’m not even supposed to be here,” Martinez said, referring to his discard status in March, and to the Tigers low-key signing of a right-handed hitting outfielder who quickly was sent to Triple A Toledo, and who slammed 17 home runs in April ahead of his Detroit call-up. “He’s supposed to get me out in that situation.
“I’m just hitting the ball on the barrel of the bat, and wherever the ball goes, it goes.”
Tigers manager Brad Ausmus agrees there is something supernatural about Martinez and those last-gasp at-bats.
“He’s obviously not daunted by the ninth,” Ausmus said, explaining another, more direct, reason for Martinez’s bust-out 2014. “You can’t teach power.”
Rotation vs. Royals
Ausmus ended any suspense Wednesday about his pitching rotation for the three-game weekend series against the Royals at Kauffman Stadium.
Justin Verlander will pitch Friday’s opener, followed by Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello.
“It’s ultimately an extremely important series,” Ausmus said of a final regular-season showdown against the second-place Royals.
Kyle Lobstein will pitch in Monday’s series opener against the White Sox at Comerica Park.
Around the horn
Anibal Sanchez is set for another bullpen session Thursday at Kauffman Stadium, even if it’s an off-day for the Tigers. He continues to strengthen his right-side muscles and prepare for a return to the Tigers staff, perhaps ahead of the team’s final regular-season game, Sept. 28.
... Alex Avila was held out Wednesday because of his concussion-related symptoms that caused him to leave last weekend’s series finale against the Indians and to miss the entire Twins series.