When J.D. Martinez returned to the lineup for Game 2 of the ALDS against the Rays despite a left ankle sprain, the effort seemed valiant yet the results unknowable. Would he be able to hold his own as a middle-of-the-order presence? The Red Sox were sufficiently concerned that they dropped the slugger to sixth in the order in case he needed to be lifted for a pinch hitter.
Seven games later, the Sox and Martinez have an answer. Not only can he perform despite the ankle injury, but it actually helped him to get his swing to arguably its best state of the season.
“I think it kind of helped me, honestly,” Martinez said.
The numbers back the claim. He entered Tuesday’s Game 4 of the ALCS against the Astros hitting .423/.464/.846 with three homers while driving in 10 in six games. He’s been consistently squaring the ball while limiting strikeouts, having fanned in just four of 28 plate appearances.
Of particular note, Martinez — after struggling for much of the year against fastballs — has been smashing them in the playoffs. He’s 7 for 17 (.412) with a homer and double against heaters.
That performance has come not in spite of his injury but arguably because of it. Martinez had been struggling for much of the year with the length and timing of his stride, when and how he shifts weight from his back leg to his front. Because of the pain in his left (front) ankle, he’s essentially eliminated the stride, relying more on his hands and torso to generate bat speed. That approach has permitted his excellent bat-to-ball skills to play with improved frequency.
“[The injury] doesn’t allow me to drift over my front foot. It kind of made me brace up against it,” said Martinez. “It took the stride length away a little bit.”
Just to confirm: The injury fixed his swing?
“No doubt … We’ve been saying for two years [that the stride was an issue]. [Now] he’s letting his hands work and he’s not striking out,” shrugged Tim Hyers. “Welcome to the world of a hitting coach.”
With the improved mechanics, Martinez is back to being a force. He now has a .342/.422/.632 line with the Red Sox in 20 playoff games, his 1.054 OPS ranking as the highest in team history by a player with at least 75 plate appearances. In 27 playoff games with the Sox, Diamondbacks, and Tigers, Martinez has driven in 30 runs, behind only Lou Gehrig (32) for the most to this point of his postseason career.
For the restoration of his performance to familiar levels, Martinez is willing to play through some discomfort.
“I told [a hitting coach] the other day, I might have to hit this thing with a bat again or something,” said Martinez. “He said, ‘We’ll do it! We’ve got to do it! ’”
When manager Alex Cora scolded Eduardo Rodriguez for taunting Astros star Carlos Correa by pointing to an invisible watch on his wrist following a sixth-inning ground out — mimicry of a gesture Correa made after a homer in Houston — he encouraged his lefthander to stay humble.
On Tuesday, Cora clarified that he didn’t think his pitcher needed to apologize to Correa and that he wants his team to celebrate and show emotion on the field. He simply didn’t want one of his players to appropriate an opponent’s gesture.
“It’s not about him doing what Correa did. It’s about what we do,” said Cora. “We don’t have to react to what the opposition [does] … We jump. We celebrate. We enjoy what we do. We play with emotion, but reacting to what the opposition, what they do, we haven’t done it in the past. We’re not going to start doing it now.”
While Correa expressed his approval and enjoyment of Rodriguez’s display, Astros manager Dusty Baker remained noncommittal.
“I’m past an opinion. Stuff that goes on today that both sides do, I mean, back in my day you would have been probably pushing up daisies somewhere [for doing it], you know what I mean?” said Baker. “It’s a new world, new day ... It’s too late for me to change the world.”
The Red Sox were one of the worst defensive teams in baseball during the regular season. Not so in the playoffs. They have held opponents to a .254 average on balls in play, lowest of any of the eight teams that played beyond the Wild Card Game.
“Our defense has been a little iffy at points this season. [But] I think we’re playing our best ball right now,” said outfielder Hunter Renfroe. “I think defensively we’re being fantastic all over the field.”
The Astros entered Game 4 having allowed a .359 average on balls in play during the playoffs, worst of any team still playing.
Back to his old self
Righthander Garrett Whitlock appears to have bounced back from his late-season pectoral strain, allowing one run in 6⅓ innings (1.42 ERA) while holding hitters to 1 for 20 in four postseason games. The performance is all the more remarkable given that Whitlock, in his first season since Tommy John surgery in late 2019, is pitching a much longer season than he’d ever previously experienced. In the minors, he’d never pitched beyond August.
“You definitely realize, ‘Wow, I’m a month into my offseason if I’m on the minor leagues,’ “ he said. “This is the longest season I’ve ever been a part of. It’s definitely a different animal.”
Lost in the Red Sox’ 12-3 win in Game 3: Hirokazu Sawamura threw a scoreless inning that included a strikeout of Alex Bregman. Cora noted that Sawamura worked from the windup for the first time this year, resulting in better rhythm in his delivery and thus effectiveness of his pitches ... Cora was pleased to see the Yankees sign manager Aaron Boone, a close friend, to a three-year extension with an option for a fourth season. “It means that the organization, the people that run the program, they trust him,” said Cora. “On a personal level, very happy for him, proud of him. It’s always good to compete against him.” … The ceremonial first pitches were thrown by Tim Wakefield, who pitched more than 3,000 innings for the Red Sox over 17 seasons and won two World Series titles, and Calum Scott, whose song, “Dancing on my Own,” has become the anthem for all Red Sox clinching celebrations … Second baseman Christian Arroyo wore cleats with “Jerry” and “Remy” printed on the back heels, an homage to the longtime Red Sox player and NESN analyst.