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Tigers’ J.D. Martinez shrugs off clutch reputation

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Did any Tigers player not named Miguel Cabrera provide more dramatic, iconic moments last season than J.D. Martinez?

How about the two-strike, game-tying home run he hit on May 15: Two outs in the eighth inning at Camden Yards off Orioles set-up man Darren O’Day? Remember that? The Orioles thought he’d struck out on the previous pitch but was granted a checked swing. Bam, he hit the next one out and Cabrera followed with the game-winning blast.

It stopped a massive skid — they Tigers had lost 11 of 12 — and probably saved manager Brad Ausmus’ job.

“Yeah, I remember that,” Martinez said. “I told Brad that one day. I said, ‘Hey, I saved your job.’ ”

Then on Aug. 3, the pinch-hit, first-pitch bomb into the shrubbery at Comerica Park off Chris Sale — on the first pitch he’d seen after being on the DL for seven weeks. It was a true goose-bump moment. The sellout crowd started to buzz the minute Martinez stepped out of the dugout and they stood as one as he got into the box. It got so loud Martinez had to step out to collect himself.

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It was complete mayhem once the ball screamed off his bat and soared over the center-field fence.

“The crowd was the best part of it,” he said. “It wasn’t even the home run. The crowd was just crazy. If I’d just hit a single and the crowd reacted like that, it would have been just as awesome.”

There was some magic surrounding that moment, too, Martinez said. First of all, Tigers play-by-play man Mario Impemba called the shot on the air. But it was predicted well before that, while Martinez was rehabbing his injury at Triple A Toledo.

“Chris McDonald, the trainer down there, was working on my arm,” Martinez recalled. “It was still stiff and bothering me and I told him I wasn’t sure it was right. But he told me it was all normal and he said, ‘You are going to hit a home run in your first at-bat back.’

“I texted him that night and said, ‘You were right!’ ”

These days, though, Martinez only thinks back on those moments when he’s asked about them.

“Now I am more like, ‘On to the next one,’ you know?” he said.

He has a unique perspective on being a clutch player; for starters, he doesn’t really think of himself in those terms.

“It’s just, this is such a talented team, talented players,” he said. “And when this team has its back to the wall, or when it is put in a tough situation, I feel like the competitiveness is going to come out. Those situations bring out the talent that we have.

“For me personally, any time those situations come up, I just try to stay focused more but the game kind of takes over. The adrenalin. You just get caught up in the moment.”

When pushed on his own ability to come through in clutch situations, he waved it off.

“It’s the same as other people in here,” he said. “Miggy does it all the time. Ian Kinsler, all the walk-offs he’s had. It’s just a matter of getting into those situations. What do they say — luck is when hard work meets opportunity.

“You just hope you get those opportunities,”

Ausmus is among those who believe some players are blessed with a clutch gene. Players like David Ortiz, Derek Jeter, Kirk Gibson, all seemed to have an innate ability to deliver in the clutch.

“For whatever reason, some players have the ability to raise their game or raise their concentration when the situation calls for it, when the game is on the line,” he said. “They have the ability to slow the game down.

“I mean, it’s baseball so you are still going to fail the majority of the time, but it just seems some guys have a knack to succeed in those situations more than others,” he said.

He said Martinez was developing that trait. Last season, despite missing those seven weeks with a broken elbow, he hit seven home runs and knocked in 12 runs late in close games.

“And then you have some guys who are so good, they end up hitting well in all situations,” he said. “Including big situations. They are just that good.”

You already know who he was referring to: Miguel Cabrera.