Tigers’ Victor Martinez fighting to have fitting final season

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Port St. Lucie, Fla. — If you didn’t know better, you might’ve thought it was 2016 again watching Victor Martinez take batting practice here Monday.

Batting left-handed in preparation of facing Mets’ right-hander Matt Harvey, he sprayed line drive after line drive into center field and the right-center gap. Nice, comfortable swings, the ball jumping off his bat, a smile on his face and a bounce in his step as he stepped back behind the cage.

Then, on his last swing, he let it fly. The ball soared well beyond the fence and onto the berm in left-center, about 10 feet short of the picnic area.

None of that was happening last year, not the smile, the bounce in his step and certainly not the pop in his bat.

“I don’t know,” he said with an impish grin. “Maybe seeing all these young kids makes you feel a little younger. No, I know that’s not the case. I’m just trying, man. Just trying to get the most that I can out of my last ride.”

BOX SCORE: Mets 4, Tigers 2

He hasn’t said so definitively, but he’s intimated several times that this season, his 16th, will be his last one. He’s 39. He’s come through surgeries on both knees and a terrifying scare with an irregular heartbeat last season, which required an ablation procedure to make right.

Martinez would love to put a bow on his marvelous career, to write a final chapter worthy of all that he’s produced and contributed in this game — to go out on a season befitting a player who among switch-hitters ranks sixth all-time in batting average, 20th in home runs and 17th in RBIs.

Not on a note as sour as the 2017 season was.

“Last year was something that couldn’t be helped,” Martinez said. “But thank God I have one more year to go out the right way. I am hoping that I am still hitting my best right to the end.”

Martinez already has hit home runs right-handed and left-handed this spring. He’s felt good enough to shag ground balls in the infield, something else he didn’t do last season. He has told manager Ron Gardenhire not to baby him, that he wants to get as many as at-bats this spring as he can.

The Tigers’ 4-2 loss Monday to the Mets was his seventh game of the spring. And even though he went 0-for-3, his bat looks quick and he looks confident again at the plate.

“I think that just comes with the games,” he said. “The more you do, the more repetition — I’m the kind of guy, I have to do a lot of repetition. The more I do, the better I get.”

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He couldn’t do any of that last year. He had to cut down the amount of time he spent in the cage before and during games. Martinez, the Tigers designated hitter, likes to take swings between at-bats during the game.

With his heart, and to a lesser degree, his knees, he had pull back last year. And, except for the month of May, he never looked at peace in the box. His career-worst numbers reflected that.

Truth be told, he’s not yet fully at peace — not when it comes to his heart. Asked if he’d answered any questions in his own mind about his ability to come back and play, he said no.

“I just, who knows?” he said. “I’ve just been taking it day by day. I haven’t had any restrictions from the doctor since he gave me the full OK. The only thing was, and he told me this beforehand, before I had surgery, he said 80 percent of the people who have this surgery don’t need a second one.

“So I am still crossing my fingers that I am among the 80 percent.”

There is a history of heart problems in Martinez’s family. His father died of a heart attack. His concern is understandable and that little seed of doubt that the arrhythmia could come back may never go away — whether he’s still playing or tending his cattle ranch here outside of Orlando.

“But other than that, I’ve been able to do my regular routine and the regular stuff that I’ve done my whole career this off-season to get ready,” he said. “It was normal for this off-season. Just small changes as I get older.

“We will see.”

And don’t let him fool you, being around so many young, exuberant players has been good for Martinez’s soul.

“I’m excited,” he said. “I was there before. There is no start in any sport like having to go through your rookie season in baseball. I am excited. I was there. And who knows, hopefully we have a few stars in here.”

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Fiers fixes it

Mike Fiers, who made his second start of the spring, was a much different pitcher after a rough first inning.

He fell behind the first batter he faced, Brandon Nimmo, 2-0, and threw a get-me-over fastball at 88 mph. Nimmo crushed it well beyond the 410-foot marker in center field.

He had a little tough luck when center fielder Leonys Martin lost Jose Reyes’ fly ball in the sun, but he nearly beaned Wilmer Flores with a curve ball before walking him, then he hit Kevin Plawecki before giving up an RBI double to Travis d’Arnaud.

“I was just getting ahead of myself,” he said. “My body was moving faster than my arm.”

Pitching coach Chris Bosio between innings told him to shorten his stride. He retired the next four batters in a row before leaving with one out in the third.

“Bosio saw it right away,” Fiers said. “I was striding out too long. We worked to shorten my stride so I can get my arm over. If the arm is behind, everything will be out of whack.”

He threw 36 pitches and 24 strikes, allowed the two runs and two hits.

Around the horn

… Relievers Johnny Barbato, Chad Bell and Buck Farmer pitched scoreless innings, but the Mets blew it open off Kevin Comer in the seventh. Reyes ripped a two-run double to right field.

…Center fielder Mike Gerber made his second highlight-worthy catch in three days. He made a Willie Mays-style over-the-shoulder catch Saturday in Lakeland. Then Monday made a long running catch at the track in left-center to rob Plawecki.

... Catcher Derek Norris got two hits. He is 5 for 9 this spring.

... Daniel Norris pitched a scoreless eighth inning. He struck out Tim Tebow swinging at a high, 1-2 change-up.