Detroit — Finally, the Tigers had seen enough of Victor Martinez’s gallant, but compromised, bid to return as an effective full-time designated hitter.
Monday night’s game at Comerica Park, a 3-2 loss to the Brewers that featured four mushy at-bats from an elite big-league hitter, led to Martinez on Tuesday being moved to the 15-day disabled list because of persistent knee weakness.
“We’re just not seeing the same Victor Martinez,” Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said before Tuesday night’s rematch against the Brewers. “He’s been a shell of what he was from the left side. Now, rest is the best option.”
There is no estimate on how long Martinez, 36, and the team’s regular designated hitter, will be out. But further surgery is not seen as necessary. And there was no doubt in Ausmus’ mind Monday that Martinez will return this season once his left knee, which required surgery in February, regains strength that was making a mess of a switch-hitter’s left-handed swing.
His roster replacement is Tyler Collins, 24, a left-handed hitting outfielder who played in 18 games last season for the Tigers. Collins was hitting .248 in 32 games for Triple A Toledo, with no home runs and a .639 OPS.
Collins was the designated hitter and batted sixth Tuesday, while J.D. Martinez moves into Victor Martinez’s clean-up spot.
Ausmus said Martinez’s frustrating, polarized spring — he has been hitting with zest from the right side, but has been frightful batting left-handed — was a series of stages that often left Martinez and the Tigers encouraged.
He hit brilliantly the final week of spring training. Then, once the season started, Martinez began a prescribed, methodical program, which included anti-inflammatories to deal with lingering pain in his left knee.
He appeared, at various times, to be healing in line with doctors’ projections. In a weekend series against the Royals at Comerica Park this month, Martinez seemed particularly comfortable, Ausmus said. It appeared the Tigers were on the verge of regaining one of the more skilled hitters in all of baseball.
“He felt like he was right there,” Ausmus said Monday. “We always felt like he was on the cusp of turning the corner.”
But by last week’s home series against the Twins, it was clear to the team, Ausmus said, that Martinez was dealing with a “backward” situation where weakness in Martinez’s knee was lengthening his left-handed swing and leading to a stream of weak ground-ball outs, pop-ups, and strikeouts.
Martinez was given a shot of cortisone last Thursday as he was assigned a four-day vacation. The Tigers had hoped even brief rest, made more convenient by a series at St. Louis where the DH is not available, would put Martinez back on track.
But his hobbled at-bats Monday convinced Ausmus, as well as Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski, that there was no option but the disabled list.
Martinez was not pleased.
“He was upset,” Ausmus said. “Not in an angry way, but he didn’t want to go on the DL. He wanted to show his teammates he could play through pain.
“It’s never easy to give good people bad news.”
Ausmus said Martinez’s running had no bearing on the decision. Never a fleet runner, Martinez’s journeys to first base and beyond have been particularly taxed during the past few seasons and weeks.
“This is more about at-bats,” Ausmus said. “We’re just not seeing the same guy. He’s got to rest.”
Martinez will not travel with the team during its next road trips. It is possible, the Tigers skipper said, that Martinez will return to the Tigertown complex in Lakeland, Florida, for some of his recovery work. Martinez lives during the off-season in nearby Orlando and could easily commute to Lakeland, where the Tigers’ rehab headquarters is based.
Collins gets call
Knowing how the big-league cosmos works means everything when it comes time to summon help from the farm.
Ausmus mentioned experience as a main reason why Collins was recalled from Triple A Toledo to replace Victor Martinez.
“He’s played that role here,” Ausmus said, explaining why Collins was the fill-in choice over Daniel Fields and others. “He can play all three outfield positions and he’s a left-hand bat.”
He, however, had no real shot at making the club out of camp and returned to Toledo where he hit .248 in 32 games, with no home runs, six doubles, and a .639 OPS.
“I really felt like I hit so many at-’em balls this spring,” Collins said as he settled into a Tigers clubhouse he hadn’t seen since last autumn. “It so often was a line drive right at someone.”
Collins is 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds, and was a sixth-round pick by the Tigers in 2011 after he wrapped up his sophomore season at Howard College in Big Spring, Texas.
If there has been a plus to his early games in Toledo, Collins said, it has been 15 walks in those 32 games.
“I’m seeing the ball a little better,” he said. “I’m getting my foot down, recognizing the ball earlier, and learning to lay off some pitches.”
Ausmus said he plans to use any of his outfielders at the DH hole Martinez filled, with Rajai Davis, J.D. Martinez, and even Yoenis Cespedes or Anthony Gose, getting a possible assignment there, along with Collins.
Bruce Rondon will make a rehabilitation appearance somewhere in the Tigers farm system Thursday as a hefty right-handed reliever works his way back to the bullpen.
If all goes well, Ausmus said, Rondon will pitch again Sunday. Any reasonable progression during his minor-league tuneups could quickly restore Rondon to Ausmus’ back-end relief corps.
Rondon has not pitched against big-league hitters since late March, during spring camp, when he developed biceps tendinitis. He missed all of 2014 recovering from Tommy John surgery.
Justin Verlander is not as advanced as Rondon but could be on the verge of his own rehab sojourn.
Verlander this week will throw an “up-and-down” bullpen — interludes designed to increase his stamina as he builds strength lost since he moved to the disabled list in late March with a strained triceps.
Castellanos takes steps
Ausmus said Nick Castellanos is making progress in his and the team’s bid to expand a third baseman’s range.
“I still think Nick’s first step is getting better,” Ausmus said. “I was mentioning that to Omar Vizquel during last night’s game.”
Vizquel, the Tigers infield coach, has been working with Castellanos on his first-step launch, which has improved noticeably, particularly as he cuts off ground balls to his left that last season eluded him.
Castellanos is approaching 11/2 seasons as a regular third baseman. It’s the same amount of time Castellanos had spent apprenticing in the outfield after the Tigers in 2012 decided a position shift was in order when Miguel Cabrera then was locked in as the long-term third baseman.
Brewers at Tigers
First pitch: 7:08 p.m. Tuesday, Comerica Park, Detroit
■RHP Kyle Lohse, Brewers (3-4, 5.85): He’s 36 and been around for 15 seasons. Can still stitch together a quality start, despite a misleading high ERA. Gives up about a hit an inning, strikes out seven or eight batters a game, walks a couple.
■RHP Shane Greene, Tigers (4-2, 4.21): Has had a couple of clunkers, but otherwise has been one of the bright areas in the rotation. The sinker needs to stay down. But Detroit likes what it has gotten from Greene in his first season in Detroit.