J.D. Martinez’s season has come with its struggles. He has not been the force that made him such a linchpin at the heart of the Red Sox’ order in years past.
The designated hitter was known to be a problem with runners in scoring position, registering a .339 batting average with a 1.022 OPS in his first four seasons with the club.
Entering Friday’s contest with the Royals, Martinez was hitting .227 with men in scoring position this year, tallying a pedestrian .672 OPS.
The Sox could not get anything going against the Royals through the first seven innings. They had just two hits, trailing, 1-0, and seemingly spoiling another quality outing by Michael Wacha.
Martinez was 0 for 2 with two strikeouts. But in the bottom of the eighth, even in a defeated season, Martinez had a chance to deliver in that high-leverage space he once called home.
Four combined walks by Kansas City relievers Dylan Coleman and Scott Barlow gave the Sox life. The last one came with the bases loaded, a four-pitch free pass to Alex Verdugo, tying the contest, 1-1.
Martinez knew Barlow could not find the strike zone. He even told himself not to swing.
But the hanging slider he got over the heart of the plate made him change course. It was too enticing to let go, so he made the split-second decision to try his luck. To trust his veteran experience.
It worked out. Martinez laced a line-drive single to left, bringing in the go-ahead run.
Fenway, even in a dispiriting season, erupted.
“It felt good to come through,” Martinez said. “Wacha pitched a good game. It would be a shame to lose that game.”
Early on, the Red Sox (70-74) looked like a team rushing to the finish line.
Through the first three innings, Sox hitters saw just 32 pitches against Royals starter Jonathan Heasley.
The Royals righthander entered the evening with a meaty 5.51 ERA in 17 starts this year. Yet Heasley blanked the Sox for six innings, striking out just four but yielding just two hits. Rafael Devers laced a single off Heasley in the first frame, but Xander Bogaerts lined into a double play and Heasley retired the next 10 batters he faced.
Verdugo negotiated a four-pitch walk to start the fifth inning. After Martinez struck out, Triston Casas also drew a walk. A Christian Arroyo single to left loaded the bases for Kiké Hernández, lending the Sox a chance to score the first run of the contest.
“We didn’t get too many hits but we had a lot of traffic,” Cora said. “That’s something we’ve been talking about.”
But what has hampered the Sox all season — hitting with runners in scoring position — made its way to the batters’ box. After going down, 0-2, in the count, Hernández battled back to bring it full. But he pulled a low and away slider, rolling over to Bobby Witt Jr. at shortstop for an inning-ending double play.
This, too, is familiar territory for the Sox, marking the 17th time the team had hit into a double play to end a frame, tied for most in the majors. The Sox have hit into a major-league high 23 double plays with a man on third and fewer than two outs.
By contrast, in the top half of the sixth, the Royals capitalized in that situation when Salvador Perez, down 1-2 in the count with a man on third, shortened up and shot an RBI single to right field.
Wacha, however, went seven innings. That would be his only blemish. He threw a first-pitch strike to 20 of the 26 batters he faced.
“He’s just pitching, man,” manager Alex Cora said. “Strike one is the key. We haven’t done that consistently throughout the year, but he has done that.”
The Sox’ offense has not made teams pay when they needed to this year. Martinez, the consistent presence in the heart of the order during most of his tenure with the Red Sox, has not done that this season.
Friday, however, made for a different script.
“For J.D. to come through,” Verdugo said, “I know it felt good.”