‘Hart of the Order’
By Sean Hartnett
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Before Game 1 of the ALDS, Baltimore Orioles closer Jim Johnson last surrendered an earned run on September 8. He was automatic for the Orioles down the stretch, notching 20 of 20 save opportunities, and only gave up one run in 24 innings pitched from August 1 to the end of the regular season.
They say everything changes in October. New heroes are born and others fall from greatness. That was certainly the case when Yankees catcher Russell Martin stepped into the box against the usually reliable Johnson to begin the ninth inning Sunday night.
Maligned for his lack of offensive productivity, Martin could have been perceived as the least likely candidate in the Yankees’ lineup to break the 2-2 deadlock. With one fell swoop, Martin silenced the fans in Baltimore, connecting with the first strike he saw from Johnson and depositing it into the left field stands.
Johnson left a 93-mile per hour sinker high in the strike zone. It didn’t sink and Martin took full advantage of the mistake pitch. Martin’s solo shot opened the floodgates as he and his Yankees teammates blasted Johnson for five ninth-inning runs.
Suddenly, the perfectionist on the mound looked ordinary.
“Against a pitcher of that caliber, you’re not expecting to hit home runs against him,” Martin explained in his postgame press conference.
“I was just trying to hit the ball hard and luckily he left the pitch over the middle of the plate for me. It definitely felt good at the moment and I felt it lifted the team a little bit.”
Martin struggled over the course of the 2012 season, batting below “The Mendoza Line” as late as September 3. He was able to put together a hot streak in the final two months of the season. He batted .263 with seven home runs and 16 RBIs in the final 23 games of the regular season.
He also had an usual knack for collecting game-winning hits in the regular season despite his .211 average. Martin had three game-winning home runs in the ninth inning or later.
Game 1 was further evidence of Martin’s ability to come through with important hits in the clutch. He’s been an unsung hero, overlooked in a power-laden Yankees’ lineup.
Martin is also the first Yankee to hit a playoff go-ahead home run in the ninth inning or later on the road since Roger Maris in 1961.
His clutch play wasn’t solely confined to the batter’s box in Game 1. Martin did an excellent job blocking pitches and prevented runs with his defense and accurate throwing arm. This was especially important in a tight game as Jason Hammel matched CC Sabathia for 5.2 innings and the Orioles’ bullpen had the Yankees’ number until Johnson’s flare-up in the ninth.
While Martin’s exploits aren’t getting the lion’s share of media attention, the Yankees have to be pleased with the entire value Martin is brings at the plate and in the field.
Has Martin been an unsung hero for the Yankees in 2012? Share your thoughts below and send your tweets to @HartnettWFAN.