TORONTO — As Russell Martin got dressed and gathered his things before leaving Rogers Centre the other night, he looked up at the clock on the clubhouse wall. It was flashing 2:00 a.m. It had been a very long Tuesday at the office for the Toronto Blue Jays catcher. Or was it actually Wednesday morning? Whichever you prefer. It definitely didn’t matter to him.
Martin had just taken an oh-for as his club dropped its home opener, four runs to three. He’d come up to bat on three occasions with runners on base and struck out swinging each time. He’d extended an early season slump to 24 plate appearances, each of them without a hit. He’d decided enough was enough.
So, shortly after the game, Martin grabbed a bat and his gloves and marched off to the batting cages deep in the bowels of Rogers Centre. Two teammates, Troy Tulowitzki and Darwin Barney, joined him. Together, they went to work—ball after ball, swing after swing, hour after hour, well into the morning.
They watched each other hit and offered advice where they could. Martin felt like he’d been jumpy at the plate—like he was rushing his swing. He could feel it in his head and shoulders, which were moving forward too quickly as he fired. So the 34-year-old veteran used that long midnight hitting session to work on quieting his approach, simplifying his movements, and shortening his path to the ball.
"Mechanically, I just didn’t feel comfortable at the plate," Martin says. "I worked on just not trying so much. Just staying relaxed and seeing the ball."
Sure enough, Martin got his first hit of the season the very next night—an arcing, 373-foot double to the wall in right-centre field. That ended a 0-for-20 stretch to start his 2017, a string of events that some would call a slump, although Martin doesn’t like that word. He prefers to think of each at-bat individually instead of chaining them together as if they’re connected. Either way—seeing a ball finally drop in was a relief.
"I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t," Martin says. "I’ve had good at-bats throughout this period where I haven’t gotten a hit or a good result. I found a couple barrels. I had some walks. But when you don’t get results it gets frustrating after a while. So to feel a ball off the barrel and see the guy not catch the ball—that was definitely encouraging."
Of course, carrying Tuesday night’s work over into Wednesday’s game wasn’t so easy. In his first at-bat, Martin got into a 1-2 count before Milwaukee Brewers starter Chase Anderson threw a pitch at his chin, trying to back Martin off the plate. The Blue Jays catcher spun away and glared out at Anderson, making his displeasure with the pitch unmistakably clear.
Maybe that glare gave Anderson an advantage. After missing with a changeup on his next pitch to work the count full, Anderson went back to that same changeup but in a better location, disguising it well and getting an over-aggressive Martin to chase for strike three.
"It’s a game of emotion," Martin says. "He probably knew I was going to be aggressive because that’s kind of my attitude. If you throw at me, I don’t get scared—I get pissed off. And he made a good pitch down in the zone, sold it like it was a fastball. But that kind of set the tone for me. After that, I was like, ‘You know what? Let’s just compete, man. Let’s compete no matter what.’"
The adversity continued Martin’s next time up. With the bases loaded and two out in a one-run game, Martin fouled off two Anderson fastballs over the plate to fall behind 0-2. He sent both balls screaming directly towards the backstop, a telltale sign of a hitter who just missed his pitch.
The tension heightened as Martin took a ball. Then, he took another one, but this time home plate umpire Jerry Layne made a late strike call on a breaking pitch that drifted a good six inches outside the zone. Martin was rung up again, the fifth time in his last six plate appearances.
Can you imagine how demoralizing that must have been? To have your slump extended and the bat taken out of your hands in such a critical situation, moments after you missed your pitch twice? But as he reflected on the at-bat after the game, Martin struck a philosophical tone.
"That’s baseball right there. That’s the beauty of the game, man," he says. "Human error. It happens. Sometimes I’m the one who makes the mistake. Sometimes it’s somebody else. But I felt like I was seeing the ball better and I felt like I was attacking the pitch that I wanted to attack. So, I just wanted to build on that."
And he did. His next at-bat was the double on a 1-2 fastball Martin drove the other way. He didn’t get to come to the plate again, a by-product of batting in the bottom half of the lineup in a game when the Blue Jays were rarely on base. But finally finding that successful result—bringing together all the work he put in late Tuesday night into early Wednesday morning with Tulowitzki and Barney—felt like the start of something good.
"I was definitely feeling a little off mechanically and I just needed to repeat the proper mechanics in the cage and find those good habits," Martin says. "Sometimes I wish I knew where the habits come from. Maybe it’s just nerves. I don’t know what the answer is. But you do fall into bad habits in this game. And you just have to work your way out of them. And I felt like that hit was a step in the right direction."
Moments like that are why the Blue Jays are encouraged that their early-season offensive inactivity won’t last. As Martin talked about his approach in that same Blue Jays clubhouse where he found himself at 2:00 a.m. the night prior, this time after yet another narrow loss, teammates were walking back and forth—some heading to the weight room, others off to watch video. While the Blue Jays have dropped seven of their first eight and scored only 2.6 runs per game along the way, the work behind the scenes has never ceased. And neither has the belief that it’s only a matter of time.
"We’ve got guys that aren’t going to quit. We’re going to keep working," Martin says. "At times it’s challenging and frustrating and you have to battle through the adversity. It’s not an easy game. But this team, we have so much talent and so much heart and so much grit that we’re not going to let this type of start dictate the whole year. We just have guys that have too much character. Our guys care too much."