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Baseball survivor Martinez sees 'light at end of tunnel'

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Since he turned 34, Tigers DH Victor Martinez has hit .293, with a .456 slugging percentage and an OPS of .811.

Detroit – Victor Martinez is gradually starting to heat up.

He’s hit safely in eight of his last 10 games. Even his outs are getting louder, like the liner he hit Thursday that was caught in front of the wall in right.

“I am feeling good,” he said.

Then Martinez stopped and, to avoid a jinx, he comically rapped his knuckles on his teeth – as if they were made of wood.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve felt like this,” he said.

Martinez is 38 years old. He will be 39 in December. You may not think so by his slow start to the season, but few hitters have aged as gracefully as he has – especially one with three knee surgeries.

Since he’s turned 34, and after missing the entire 2012 season, Martinez has hit .293 with a .456 slugging percentage and an OPS of .811. He’s hit 84 home runs and knocked in 345 runs.

“It’s a fight, man – it’s a fight,” he said.

He hit 27 home runs last season, which is why the Tigers, and especially manager Brad Ausmus, are not fretting his slow start.

“I know this is a fast-food society and they want instant results, but that’s not how baseball works,” Ausmus said. “Baseball is over the long haul. That’s why we are talking about sample size so much. Justin Upton struggled for a long time last season and he hit 31 home runs and knocked in (87) runs.

“That’s why I don’t rush to judgment, even if a player is older. Victor hit 27 home runs last year. It’s not like it was three or four years ago.”

Martinez isn’t delusional. He knows the sand is almost out of the bottle. And he’s OK with that.

“I tell my wife and my kids, and some of the guys around here: When we started this career, playing baseball in the Major Leagues, I never saw the light at the end of the tunnel – we thought we can play this game forever,” Martinez said. “I can tell you, I am seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Ausmus: No rush to judgment on Rodriguez

Martinez has one year left on his contract, and his goal is to finish the 2018 season and retire as a Tiger.

“I thank God he gave me the opportunity to have a pretty decent career,” he said. “After this one, I’ve got one more next year and I am going to be done. No regrets. I’ve enjoyed everything my whole career and everything this game has given me.

“No regrets. I’ve been very happy with what I’ve done and I look forward to the next chapter.”

But this isn't a farewell tour. There is more work to be done. He could go over 2,000 career hits this season, and his career batting average is right at .300. Also, he has a chance to hit over .300 from both sides of the plate. He’s hitting .305 right-handed for his career and .297 left-handed.

And most importantly, he’d like to taste the postseason again before he’s through.

“I’ve been a pretty honest guy, even to myself,” Martinez said. “I wish I could feel the way I felt when I was 25, but that’s not happening. I’ve seen videos when I was like 25 to 28 years old, and I see the videos now, the way I hit.

“I’ve changed a little bit, but the only way you notice is when you go back and see it on the video.”

The surgeries, more than the years, have forced him to alter his swing.

“Because of that, you start to do things to not feel the pain,” he said. “And you say, ‘How did I ever come to start hitting like that?’ It’s bad habits because you don’t want to do something that’s going to make you feel pain. You don’t use your legs the way you are supposed to.

“There is a lot going into it, but I have to fight with it.”

He has compensated for whatever the years have taken from him with his heart and with his head.

“That’s the thing,” he said. “You study the pitchers. You have an idea how they’re going to attack you. You study and you know what the pitcher is going to throw when they get in trouble and you get ready.

“This game, it might be 90 percent mental. You’ve got to be really strong mentally to play this game. Besides the talent that God gave you, you’ve got to be smart.”

Fifteen big-league seasons, a .300/.365/.465/.830 slash line, five All-Star appearances and runner-up for MVP honors in 2014, Martinez has been pretty smart and pretty good. He’s a baseball survivor.

Twitter: @cmccosky