TORONTO – Lost seasons are few and far between in Russell Martin’s career, with nine trips to the playoffs in 11 years, including the last six in a row, before this difficult and trying campaign with the Toronto Blue Jays. Playing spoiler in the middle of September isn’t exactly his thing, yet the 34-year-old declined the chance to pull the plug on playing out the string, determined to return from an oblique injury and draw some sort of value from the remaining 2½ weeks.
“Everybody is motivated differently,” he said Tuesday after taking batting practice following his activation from the disabled list. “It’s a game that you need to play with a team mentality. You’re playing to win, you’re not playing for your stat line, in my opinion. You get someone on second base late in a tight game, everybody in the stands can see if you’re trying to get somebody over or trying to get a job done, depending on your role on the team. You’ve got to treat it like it’s the only game you have, and you play to win because 3-for-3 doesn’t feel as good when you lose.”
Such a mentality is one way to endure the death march to the end that the final days of the season can be for non-contenders. During the six straight seasons in which Martin helped teams reach the post-season, he logged 6,144.2 innings over 724 regular-season games and played in 38 of his 57 career playoff games. Few catchers are as durable and able to perform at a high level both offensively and defensively over such a prolonged stretch.
The left oblique strain Martin suffered Aug. 11 sent him to the disabled list for a second time, with a nerve issue in his left shoulder having sidelined him for 12 games back in May. He’d made only two trips to the DL previously in his entire career – a labral tear in his right hip truncating his 2010 season and a left hamstring strain knocking him out about a month in 2014.
In combination with all those playoff games, that’s a sizable amount of wear and tear.
“If you’re mentally prepared for it, you’re just prepared because that’s the goal – the goal is to play that extra month of baseball,” said Martin. “I can’t say it was super taxing or that those extra months of baseball I played have been wearing me down. I don’t feel that way. I’d have to be in both situations to be able to tell you, ‘Oh, this is how I feel,’ because it’s what I’ve played through and I feel fine.”
Well, he’s going to find out what kind of difference an extra month of rest makes this winter, when the Blue Jays have some interesting questions to answer about their catching situation.
Clearly they’re in need of a better backup but having Martin in place can be an impediment to finding one. Before the Blue Jays handed a minor-league deal to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, they were spurned by Chris Iannetta, who figured he’d get more playing time in Arizona.
The free-agent pool this winter isn’t rich with tantalizing options – Iannetta will be out there again, while Alex Avila would fit well – but barring injury the Blue Jays won’t be able to win a bid based on playing time. That could leave them looking for non-tenders or players squeezed off 40-man rosters, which is likely to mean only an incremental gain over the likes of Luke Maile, Raffy Lopez and Miguel Montero.
Otherwise, the Blue Jays will be banking on the rapid growth of a prospect like Danny Jansen, Max Pentecost or Reese McGuire, each of whom must be added to the 40-man roster in November or risk exposure to the Rule 5 draft. Jansen is knocking on the door while both Pentecost and McGuire could be soon, too, but one or two of them might have to be traded since carrying four or five catchers on the 40-man roster isn’t an optimal setup.
A healthy and revitalized Martin eases concerns about the quality of the backup, but regardless, the Blue Jays are kicking around the possibility of someone they could comfortably play more frequently.
Manager John Gibbons noted how much Martin was missed defensively during his absence, and given the load he’s carried the past two years, playing in 266 regular-season games plus 17 more in the playoffs, it’s perhaps too easy to take his game for granted.
But beyond the pitch-framing, the game-calling and the .735 OPS in a down-year offensively, there’s also Martin’s toughness and determination that are difference-makers.
“There’s only a couple of weeks left, but it’s important to him,” Gibbons said of Martin’s return from the DL. “I could have gone either way, but he wants to do it.”
Martin’s motivation is, as always, simple and singular.
“Everybody would rather go back to the clubhouse when the music is playing and we’re having fun as opposed to having a great personal day, driving in some runs or hitting a couple of homers and then everybody is down. That’s how I see it,” said Martin, whose personal goals are similarly straightforward. “Just play well. Go out there, compete, get back into it and just stay on the field, man. Too much DL time for me this year. I plan on it being the last time I get on the DL, know what I mean?”