If J.D. Martinez can hit in September and October like he did in April and May, the Red Sox might still have life.
All bromides about baseball being a team game to the contrary, one player can alter the complexion of a lineup and the trajectory of a (post?)season, especially if that player is a two-time Silver Slugger who's only three years removed from making a spirited run at the Triple Crown while helping the Red Sox win a championship.
Red Sox manager Alex Cora has spoken with increasing urgency of the "big boys" in the middle of his lineup: Martinez, Xander Bogaerts, and Rafael Devers. While hot streaks from Bobby Dalbec, Kiké Hernández, Hunter Renfroe, and Alex Verdugo contributed to wins at various points this summer, the Red Sox are built to go as far as their big three will take them.
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And for all the production of Devers and Bogaerts, that really means Martinez. He's the veteran anchor of the lineup, and he hasn't looked like himself in months. That's what made Wednesday's 6-0 victory over the Orioles so intriguing. It's just one game against the worst team in the American League, but Martinez did the kind of damage that reminded us why he was the perfect successor to David Ortiz at designated hitter.
He went 3 for 4 with three RBIs and blasted his longest home run in a Red Sox uniform, a 444-foot shot to dead center that put the Red Sox on the board in the second inning and ended up being the only run starter Nathan Eovaldi would need.
He added an insurance two-run double in the sixth and a line single in the eighth. Even if Martinez didn't hit big velocity, which has tied him up for much of the season, he at least looked on time and made the Orioles pay for their mistakes. It has been a long time coming.
"You know, I've been feeling just kind of off-and-on, off-and-on, off-and-on type deal," Martinez said. "Hoping that I can kind of just carry what I was feeling today and ride it for as long as I can."
Though Martinez is now batting a respectable .287 with 28 homers and 99 RBIs, he expects more and so do we win. Two months into the season, it looked like he might hit .340 with 40 bombs. Then came his mystifying struggles with velocity, which are worth reiterating. His hits on Wednesday came on a changeup, slider, and sinker in the 80s.
Per Baseball Savant, Martinez is batting just .247 with a .599 OPS on pitches of at least 95 mph. During his monster 2018 (.330-43-130), by comparison, he hit .364 with 1.030 OPS against such heat.
One night in Baltimore doesn't fix that problem, especially with the possibility of a wild card matchup looming against flame-throwing Yankees ace Gerrit Cole. But given Martinez's relative struggles since June 1 -- .260-15-57-.792 -- the Red Sox will take any shred of good news they can find.
"He hasn't deviated from what he does as far as preparation and his swing," Cora said. "Today was a great day. He did an amazing job, obviously the homer and then the rest of his at-bats. Seeing him in the dugout and throughout the game, he was pretty locked in.
"We need the big boys to do their thing. We're a very offensive team. We're a lot better when the big boys are swinging the bat. The other guys will contribute like Hunter and Alex and Kike. It's not that we depend on them, but when we're really, really good, they do damage. They do what they did today, so that was a good first step."
With four games to go and the Red Sox clinging to the second wild card spot, they'll need every bit of inspiration they can muster to punch their ticket to October and at least give themselves a shot.
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Martinez is central to that effort, and he embraces it.
"This is awesome," he said. "I'm sure you guys are having fun with it too. We're having fun. This is a little more pressure on us, but I like to have fun with these things. This is what we play for, to be in these situations. If they told us at the beginning of spring training we'd be in this situation, I think everybody would be excited and be looking forward to the challenge."