CHICAGO -- When Russell Martin stuck the baseball into Carlos Pena's face in the key play of Saturday's 4-3 New York Yankees victory over the Chicago Cubs, he wasn't just showing off his fresh green manicure.
No, the most rugged guy in a Yankees uniform was also showing Pena, and the rest of his teammates, that he is no pushover behind the plate. No run-over, either.
"That was just the feistiness in me,'' said Martin, as tough as a horsemeat steak, who played some ice hockey as a kid growing up in Canada and follows a rigorous MMA routine as part of his in-season conditioning regime. "I love it. I love plays like that. I'm a competitor, and that was a big play in the game."
It turned out to be the biggest play in the game, a remarkable play, really, which started with the legs of Brett Gardner, which carried him to Geovany Soto's sinking liner to medium left, moved on to Gardner's arm, which uncorked a perfect, one-hop throw to the plate, and ended with Martin standing his ground as Pena, all 6-foot-2, 225 pounds of him, barreled full-speed into the catcher with both arms upraised.
"Clean play," Martin said. "There wasn't anything dirty about it. He led with the shoulder, and I took it."
Took it like a champ, riding with the punch to lessen the sting, hitting the ground hard and then rolling over and popping up before any referee could have begun a count over him.
And, oh yeah, displaying the baseball, first to plate umpire Sam Holbrook and then to Pena, as if showing off a hard-earned trophy.
"That's passion. That's emotion," said former catcher Joe Girardi, with undisguised admiration. "When someone's trying to run you over, you don't necessarily help him up. That's just part of the game. That's the one thing sometimes people forget about, the emotion we play the game with. Sometimes we're gonna do some things people don't necessarily like but a lot of times that's just emotion."
Of all the players added to the roster this offseason, it often seems as if Martin is the one closest to Girardi's heart, if only because they play the same position and share some of the same values about the way it should be played.
Both agree that collisions are part of a catcher's life and disagree strongly that any rules changes should be adopted in the wake of the recent play that knocked Buster Posey out of the San Francisco Giants' lineup with an ankle injury.
"Really, it's up to the catcher to either leave himself in a position that's vulnerable or not," Martin said. "They teach you to either stay in front of the plate or take it away when you have the baseball, and that's normally what I do. I rarely leave myself in a position where, if the ball's not there, to get hit."
Martin had no problem with Pena's attempt to bowl him over, but conceded there are instances in which he might have taken offense.
"A hit where if you're in front of the plate but not blocking it and then you get hit, that's a dirty play," he said. "If I get hit like that, there's going to be some sparks flying."
As there would be if anyone were unwise enough to refer to the catcher's equipment as "the tools of ignorance" in the presence of either Martin or his manager; both seem to regard the gear as noble regalia, like a knight's armor.
"That's baseball," Girardi said. "That's the way the game was when I played it. I was taught that you protect that plate for your club and your pitcher, and that's what you do. When you put that gear on, that's what you sign up for."
Asked if, knowing Martin recently missed seven games with a sore back, the manager had held his breath as the collision shaped up, Girardi simply said, "No. It's part of the game. I've said all along, this is a strong, tough kid."
The play ended the sixth inning for the Cubs and preserved a precarious 3-2 Yankees lead that went on to be a white-knuckled win after Mariano Rivera allowed a leadoff home run in the ninth inning to Reed Johnson that cut the margin to 4-3.
The Yankees had plenty of chances all day to make a blowout of this one; Cubs starter Ryan Dempster walked six batters, and the Yankees twice had the bases loaded with one out and failed to score. Ten free baserunners in all courtesy of five Cubs pitchers, and not one of them came around to score. Once again, the Yankees stranded mobs of runners -- 13 in all -- and were 4-for-13 with runners in scoring position.
And a run that, at the time, seemed like insurance, doubled in by Eduardo Nunez in the top of the ninth to make it 4-2, turned out to be crucial.
"We had every opportunity to kind of blow the game open a few times and we weren't able to do that" Girardi said. "Some days you're going to get a lot of hits with runners on, some days you're not. But we won, that's the bottom line."
The Yankees got a good effort out of A.J. Burnett, who didn't pitch as well as he had last week, when he was beaten 1-0 by Carlos Carrasco and the Cleveland Indians at the Stadium. But if not for a 1-0 fastball that Pena crushed over the right-center field fence to tie the game at 2 in the fourth, Burnett would have thrown a gem.
The win ran Burnett's record to 7-5 and dropped his ERA to 4.05, both encouraging stats to a starting staff decimated by injury and at least temporarily dependent upon Brian Gordon, a converted outfielder, to occupy one of the spots.
But there is no minimizing the positive effect having Martin behind the plate has had on Burnett, whose best pitch is often his curveball in the dirt, a swing-and-miss pitch he would no doubt be reluctant to throw with a less-reliable backstop behind the plate.
Martin is able to keep that pitch from getting by him in much the way he kept Pena from getting by him. Girardi called Martin's knack for blocking pitches "way above average."
"He's as good as it gets," the manager said. "It's not easy to block A.J's curveball. It has a lot of rotation, and sometimes they're short. I think that's extremely important for a pitcher, to know that you can bounce a ball and nothing's really going to happen."
It's especially important for Burnett, who is notoriously erratic psychologically on the mound and maddeningly finicky about his catchers.
"He's got a good eye on what my hook does," Burnett said. "If I've got a strike on a hitter, I'm going to throw it in the dirt, and it gives
you confidence that no matter what the count is, what the scenario
is during the game, you can throw it and they can block it."
Martin certainly can block it, whether it's the baseball in the dirt or the runner bearing down on him. On Saturday, those qualities did more than just remind you of his toughness.
They also earned the Yankees a tougher-than-expected victory.
Yankees patient with Nunez fielding woes
Nunez, who had a single and scored a run in addition to his RBI double, continues to be a thrill ride in the field. He booted Johnson's grounder in the sixth, his eighth error of the season, and easily could have had two others on bad throws that were saved by Mark Teixeira at first base. Girardi tried to excuse the shoddy play by pointing to Nunez's unfamiliarity with the Wrigley infield. He also acknowledged that Nunez's growing pains were a price the Yankees would be willing to pay in exchange for the speed and energy he brings to their lineup in Derek Jeter's absence. "It's just something we're all going to have to go through,'' he said.
More trouble in the field
Robinson Cano also made an error, mishandling A-Rod's throw on what should have been an easy double-play grounder by Alfonso Soriano in the sixth. It was the Yankees' ninth multi-error game of the season. They had 10 all of last season.
Blunders on the basepaths
Rodriguez had two hits, but inexplicably tried to stretch one into a double in the fifth as Soriano threw him out by at least five yards. "I think Alex felt a little aggressive in that situation and took a chance," Girardi said. "If I had to guess, I think he thought Soriano kinda dropped his head and just was gonna kinda take it easy throwing it in. It didn't pay off." Neither did Gardner getting picked off first with one out in the sixth, although he did make an exciting rundown of it, forcing the Cubs to make six throws before finally nailing him.
A-Rod reaches milestone
A-Rod's run in the third was the 1,800th of his career, which placed him 16th on the all-time list, ahead of Ted Williams.