DETROIT -- When J.D. Martinez entered a tie ballgame Wednesday night in the bottom of the eighth inning, he couldn’t believe the crescendo he heard reverberating throughout Comerica Park. The standing ovation that escorted him to the plate -- welcoming him back after missing seven weeks with a fractured elbow -- was unlike anything he’d experienced before.
Even his opponents took heed of the moment. Chicago White Sox catcher Dioner Navarro embraced the Detroit Tigers outfielder and welcomed him back to the field. Ace Chris Sale stopped his routine, stepped off from the mound and acknowledged Martinez’s arrival, letting him soak it all in.
And Martinez did. So much so that he completely abandoned the plan he had prepared. Overcome with emotion and adrenaline, he adopted a new approach.
“See the ball. Hit the ball.”
He didn’t just hit the ball, he pounded the ball -- the first major league pitch he had seen since June 16 -- over the wall in center field, breaking the tie and sending an already-enthralled crowd into absolute delirium.
“That was probably the coolest moment of my career, right there,” Martinez said.
Relief pitcher Shane Greene was in the tunnel when it happened, having just hunkered down in the video room to watch clips of his work the previous inning. He knew by the deafening sound that something big had occurred. Right fielder Mike Aviles was standing next to him, having also heard the irrefutable “whack” of heavy lumber.
Aviles, Greene and the team’s video coach, August Sandri, huddled together near the replay screen, screaming, “Get out! Get out!”
And then it was a full sprint to the top of the stairs to meet Martinez as he rounded the bases in triumph. Aviles said he didn’t even know who was next to him at the time, or who made it to the top of the dugout first. But he remembers the feeling when he got there.
“Freaking awesome,” Aviles said.
Manager Brad Ausmus called it a “spotlight moment” for Martinez, and one he’ll never forget. The only way it could’ve been drawn up to satisfy a more storybook ending, he said, was if Martinez had hit a walk-off in the bottom of the ninth.
But the Tigers, winners in eight straight now with the 2-1 victory, will take it just the same.
“That was special. Awesome. It changed the momentum. When he hit the ball so hard, the crowd was electric,” said closer Francisco Rodriguez, who escaped a bases-loaded jam in the bottom of the ninth to record his 30th save in his 900th career appearance -- his eighth season with 30 or more saves.
For Martinez, who was activated from the disabled list prior to the game, it was the second pinch-hit home run of his career. He now has three career home runs against Sale, the most he has against any pitcher in the majors, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information. The White Sox fell to 0-4 in Sale’s past four starts, despite the fact the controversial pitcher was outstanding in his fourth complete game this season. He topped a season-high with 10 strikeouts.
Conversely, the Tigers have now gone 15-2 in rookie pitcher Michael Fulmer’s starts this season (44-46 in games started by any other pitcher), according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The 23-year-old gave up one run on five hits over 6⅔ innings.
Wednesday night was a special one for the Tigers, one that had a sort of surreal quality and could prove a seminal moment when the team looks back on the 2016 season. The Tigers are on a winning streak. They are gaining ground on the Cleveland Indians. And they have enraptured the fan base once again.
That much was evident even before Martinez’s home run.
“I wasn’t expecting to get that kind of ovation that they gave me when I was walking in. That was awesome. I couldn’t ask for anything more,” Martinez said. “If I could thank the fans individually, I would thank them.”
But likely, that home run was better than any thanks he could have offered.