Chicago — Leonys Martin chased after the soaring line drive as if he was in an open field, as if there was no fence or wall in right-center field.
Running full throttle as he got to the warning track, he didn’t slow down as he leaped and caught Tim Anderson’s smash just as he crashed into the chain-linked fence.
It was a brilliant, selfless effort that ended the fifth inning of the Tigers’ 3-1 win over the White Sox on Sunday. But, of course, all it got him was grief in the clubhouse.
“The only reason he made that catch was the phenomenal communication he had,” said right fielder Nick Castellanos, whose locker was next to Martin’s. “If I didn’t talk to him the whole way, he doesn’t know where he’s at and he doesn’t make the catch.”
Martin was shaking his head, smiling.
“That was the right-fielder’s ball,” he said.
“I directed him the whole way,” Castellanos said.
“He didn’t say (nothing),” Martin said.
Martin was asked if he thought that part of the fence was softer — it does have some give to it — so he knew he could crash into it that hard.
“That’s not a soft wall, man,” he said, showing his forearm, which had the pattern of the fence links embedded in his skin.
That wasn’t the only exceptional play Martin made Sunday.
In the third inning, with the score 2-1, Yolmer Sanchez hit a ball over Martin’s head and to the wall in right-center. Sanchez is fast and has eight triples on the season. But Martin, though he slipped on the warning track, got to the ball and fired a missile straight to third base — forcing Sanchez to stop at second.
It ended up preventing a run. Kevan Smith followed with a broken-bat infield single. Had Sanchez been on third base, the game would’ve been tied. Because of the throw, Sanchez was on third when starter Blaine Hardy struck out Matt Davidson to end the inning.
“This is not Comerica Park,” Martin said. “This is a little bit closer. I felt like I would be able to throw him out. Just got caught up in the moment.”
Manager Ron Gardenhire, who often uses Martin as a comic foil in the clubhouse and dugout, makes no jokes about his value to the team defensively.
“He runs them down,” he said. “He’s pretty darn good and he’s got a cannon for an arm. He’s an exciting player. He wants to win. I'm telling you, he really wants to win.”
The Tigers ran themselves out of the third inning.
JaCoby Jones singled and went to third on Martin’s double with nobody out. Jeimer Candelario hit a ball back to pitcher James Shields. Jones was caught off third and then Candelario was thrown out at second — a 1-5-2-4 double play.
“We killed ourselves on the basepaths today,” Gardenhire said. “And we don’t say that too often. We’re pretty aggressive and that’s going to happen sometimes.”
The White Sox played their middle infielders back, in double-play depth, and their corner infielders in. Jones was not supposed to be running on contact.
“He was told not to go,” Gardenhire said. “We were going to go if the ball got by the pitcher up the middle and then freeze if it’s at the corners. That’s not an easy read. But you have to make it get by the pitcher — that’s the first part of it.”
Third base coach Dave Clark tried to take the blame.
“Dave said he yelled, ‘Go,’ when it was hit,” Gardenhire said. “Dave said it was on his shoulders. But Jonesy went as soon as the ball hit the bat.”
Jones didn’t let Clark take the heat.
“I should’ve just seen it through,” Jones said. “But from my angle, it looked like it was hit at the shortstop. I could’ve paused. There were no outs. But it looked like it was four or five feet over the pitcher’s mound. It looked like a routine grounder to short.”
Jones also got picked off first base by left-hander Luis Avilan.
“I talked to him afterwards,” Gardenhire said, with a smile. “I said, ‘You are exciting. You are really exciting.’”
Four Tigers pitchers and not a single walk on Sunday. In fact, the Tigers walked just four batters in the three-game series and have walked two or fewer in nine straight games.
“Free passes, that’s what gets you killed,” Gardenhire said. “The pressure goes back on the pitcher and the defense when you start putting people on base. We have to throw the ball over. In the games we’ve had trouble, we’ve put people on base with free passes — and that’s the same for any team in baseball.”
The Tigers late-inning relievers have also been lights out. They have not allowed a run after the sixth inning in the last seven games. That’s 13 innings of scoreless work after the sixth inning.
Louis Coleman, Alex Wilson, Joe Jimenez and Shane Greene have carried the load. Wilson hasn’t allowed a run in 11 innings over 10 outings. Jimenez, who got his second save of the year Sunday, has allowed one earned run in 19 outings.
And Greene, who was unavailable Sunday, had saved the last four wins in a row.