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Younger Martinez a new threat for Tigers

06/22/2014, 12:00am EDT
By DAVID BRIGGS BLADE SPORTS WRITER

CLEVELAND — J.D. Martinez’s eight home runs in his final eight games with the Mud Hens earlier this season had the feel of a once-in-a-career binge.

Two months later, the Tigers outfielder may be even hotter.

Martinez is making a persuasive case for an everyday role as he continues to provide an unexpected degree of protection in the heart of the Tigers’ order.

Reminding of his start in Toledo, Martinez hit homers in each of the past three games prior to Saturday’s contest, and has a career-best 10-game hitting streak, a span over which he is batting .447 (17 for 38).

How does it feel to swing the bat these days?

“To be honest, it feels awesome,” Martinez said before the game. “You just feel locked in, ready for every pitch. The biggest thing is not missing pitches, not fouling pitches off.”

Few gave much thought weeks earlier when Tigers manager Brad Ausmus gushed about Martinez’s elite power potential. Martinez, 26, was cast off by the Houston Astros after last year and had never hit more than 18 home runs in his first five professional seasons. He hit only three homers in a fringe role during his first 24 games with Detroit, only strengthening the hunch that those 10 home runs in 17 games in Toledo were an aberration.

Yet when asked if he felt he could ever replicate his tear in Toledo, Martinez said, “I didn’t see why not.” And so he has, with four home runs in five games and the longest active hitting streak in the American League. Ausmus said Miguel Cabrera is the only Tigers hitter who rivals Martinez’s raw power to all fields.

In all, Martinez is batting .317 with seven homers and 25 RBIs.

The unexpected recent muscle has made an already bruising middle of the order — Cabrera batting third and Victor Martinez hitting cleanup — all the more treacherous. Indians manager Terry Francona suggested he learned his lesson after walking Victor Martinez to face J.D. Martinez in the eighth inning on Friday. All J.D. Martinez did was send an opposite-field, three-run homer screaming to right field — his third hit of the night.

“J.D. Martinez is a different hitter, a more aggressive hitter than [Victor Martinez],” said Francona, noting the younger Martinez has only six walks. “But he is dangerous. It’s made Miguel and Victor even better. Because a guy’s so hot, you may have to pitch to a guy you don’t want to.”

Martinez is also creating decisions for the Tigers. He could cast aside another corner outfielder, be it Rajai Davis, Don Kelly, the injured Andy Dirks, or, less likely, Torii Hunter — who missed his fifth straight game with a sore hamstring Saturday.

For now, the choice is simple. Martinez is playing.

“[The outfielders], they’re reasonable guys,” Ausmus said. “They understand J.D. is swinging the bat well. It wouldn’t be smart to take J.D. out of the lineup. ... You’ve got to ride the horse when it’s hot.”

BRANTLEY BACK: Indians star outfielder Michael Brantley returned to the starting lineup for the first time since suffering a concussion on Monday.

Brantley, injured as he attempted to break up a double play, is fourth in the AL with a .326 batting average.

“It’s nice to get him back,” Francona said. “He means so much to what we’re doing. He’s really turned himself into one of the better players in the game.”

NO LOVE LOST: Count at least one former Indians player not thrilled by Omar Vizquel’s induction on Saturday into the club’s Hall of Fame.

Vizquel said he has yet to make peace with Jose Mesa, whom he blasted in his 2003 autobiography for blowing the save in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series. Mesa vowed to repay Vizquel each time the former teammates squared off for the rest of their careers.

“He hit me three times,” Vizquel said with a smile.

“He said he was going to hit me every time he faced me, and he did that.”

Until one final meeting, when Vizquel evened the score.

“[Mesa] was playing for Colorado in one of his last years, and he had bases loaded,” said Vizquel, now the Tigers’ first base coach. “I came up to hit and I thought, ‘‍Well, if he hits me, I'm going to get an RBI.’ He pitched to me, and I got a base hit to right and I got two RBIs. I got him back.”

He has not seen Mesa since.

“It’s so funny, because he was one of my best friends when I was here,” Vizquel said. "We had lockers next to each other. We lived five minutes away from each other. We fooled around a lot. We cooked together. It was kind of sad that I never got to tell him that I didn't really mean anything bad about what I said in the book.”

Contact David Briggs at: dbriggs@theblade.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.

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Tag(s): Pro  Indians  Tigers  David Briggs