J.D. Martinez, Upton show signs of spring thaw

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
J.D. Martinez

Lakeland, Fla. – Ask J.D. Martinez about his approach to spring training.

“Spring training is that time when you’ve just got to learn how to play again,” he said before the Tigers’ 3-0 Grapefruit League win over the Pirates Saturday. “You’ve got to shake the rust off and just get the timing of the game. You can train however you want but once you get back here, it’s all about getting used to that speed.

“You can’t simulate it. But as the spring goes on, you are like, ‘OK, I remember how to do this.’”

Indeed. Martinez came in hitting .167 -- 3 hits in 18 at-bats. But in his second at-bat Saturday, something clicked back in.

He drilled a pitch from Pirates left-hander Jeff Locke on a line over the fence and onto the berm in left-center field. It was his second homer of the spring.

“You are always going to be ironing your swing out,” he said. “It’s never right, it’s never perfect. Even Miggy (Cabrera) has days when it doesn’t feel right. Our doctor said it best – every day you wake up your body’s not the same. Some days you are more tired. Some days you are not. All of that affects your swing, the speed, your reactions.

“Every day you have to search to find your swing.”

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Justin Upton, the Tigers’ $132.75 million investment in left field, is going through the same process. He has two hits in his first 16 at-bats, striking out 10 times and drawing five walks.

But on Saturday he drove a screaming line drive to the track in center field that was run down by the Pirates’ Danny Ortiz.

“That was a good sign,” Upton said. “Putting the barrel on a pitch in the zone – I’ve been swinging through a lot of those pitches. To put the barrel on one like that is definitely progress.”

Like Martinez said, spring training is a process for established hitters. It used to be a source of great stress for Martinez, who was designated for assignment by the Astros before the 2014 season.

Now, though, after producing 61 home runs and 178 RBI the last two years with the Tigers, the annual spring training dread and self-doubt are gone.

“There was never really panic,” Martinez said. “In years before when you’d go through something like that and you didn’t know, you’d be like – you’d tense up, almost like a sense of panic. The last couple of years there was no sense of that.

“It’s just a feeling of confidence that it’s going to come.”

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For Upton, who has averaged 26 homers the last five seasons, slow starts have long been a part of his spring training ritual.

“I’ve seen a lot of pitches and I am drawing a few walks,” he said. “I’m forcing some deep counts. The swing comes. The time and the swing, they come. It’s not something I am worried about. It’s more about seeing pitches, not swinging at bad pitches – that’s the key. Once that timing gets there, everything comes together.”

Manager Brad Ausmus isn’t sweating it, not even a little.

“J.D. has hit some balls hard during the course of spring,” he said. “Justin’s had a little bit of a slow start, but we have more than half our games left down here. There is plenty of time left to get his timing down.”

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Holaday in left

As Bryan Holaday continues to hit – he walked in his only at-bat Saturday – the Tigers continue to search for ways to get him in the lineup.

A catcher by trade, he’s played third base already this spring, and on Saturday, for the final three innings, he played left field.

How did it feel out there?

“It felt far away,” he said.

Whether the Tigers are testing the limits of his versatility for their own benefit or to boost Holaday’s trade value – he’s the third catcher and out of minor league options – remains to be seen.

“It doesn’t hurt that he can play other positions and I think he can play other positions,” manager Brad Ausmus said. “It could potentially help us and it could potentially help him.”