J.D. helps steer Mets in right direction with hot bat

June 17th, 2024

There is too much baseball to be played, a world of it, for the Mets and everybody else to know for sure if J.D. Martinez -- who joined the club late as a free agent -- might have just saved the Mets season over the past week. But maybe he did. And as bleak as things had started to look for the Mets, they will take the win. Five of them, actually. In a row.

What looked like a nowhere team suddenly looks as if it might have a chance to go places. Again: Too soon to know if that means the playoffs, especially with a Wild Card field in the National League as crowded as a 7 train on its way to Citi Field. But for the first time this season, the Mets seem to believe that it might.

The Mets won again on Sunday. They scored four in the first inning, because the guys who were supposed to carry the offense -- Francisco Lindor and Pete Alonso -- both hit home runs. Alonso’s three-run shot was his 15th homer of the season. The Mets, who had started to look as if they couldn’t score a ton of runs even if the other team went home, ended up rolling an 11 and sweeping the Padres.

But it was Martinez (two more hits in the game) who did the heavy lifting before everybody got to Sunday, and reminded everybody that he has been one of the best comeback stories in baseball over the past decade even if nobody still talks about that nearly enough.

At this point, Martinez has still only played 44 of the Mets' 70 games because he signed as a free agent late and didn’t make his Mets debut until April 26. But he has eight home runs and 27 RBIs since then, and he is providing the kind of protection behind the Polar Bear that Alonso needs and the Mets need. The Mets, just like that, have won 11 of their past 15 games and are as hot as anybody around.

They are still in fourth place in the NL East. Still behind the Nationals. But after what had been such a painfully quiet season at Citi Field, littered by blown saves and blown leads, they have made some noise. And the big guy over the past week was J.D., the guy who wasn’t even there when the season started.

“I feel like the guys have been feeling more confident. It’s one of those things,” Martinez said after hitting two home runs on Saturday. “Just go out there and play ball. Not worrying about winning or losing, just play your game. It takes the pressure off everybody ... just have to keep chipping away, keep getting guys on and giving yourself the opportunity for someone to come up and get that hit."

Martinez is the one who hit a walk-off home run last Wednesday when the Mets beat the Marlins, the first walk-off homer of his career. Then his double on Friday night beat the Padres, the Mets now two-thirds of the way toward a series sweep. Then two homers on Saturday. By Sunday, there was a point when Martinez had been on base nine straight times. The Mets won again to grind their record to 33-37. They looked like a real team again, for the first time in a while. Their star of the moment absolutely is Martinez just over 10 years after the Astros released him in Spring Training, what had been a Spring Training when Martinez only got 18 at-bats and had effectively become invisible.

The Astros' general manager at the time, Jeff Luhnow, would say later that he’d called all around baseball trying to find interest in Martinez and gotten “crickets” as a response. But Al Avila, running the baseball operation for the Tigers at the time remembered Martinez from when he had been the teammate of Al’s son Alex back at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. It was the Tigers who gave Martinez another chance. Since then, all he has done is hit 299 home runs in the big leagues and knock in more than 900 runs, in Detroit, Arizona, Boston, Los Angeles and now New York.

In 2018, on perhaps the best Red Sox team of all time, he was as valuable as the actual MVP Mookie Betts, hitting 43 homers with 130 RBIs. Last season with the Dodgers, he hit 33 homers and knocked in 103 runs in just 113 games. Now he’s a Met. Looking at what he’s doing it is kind of, well, amazin’ that the Mets didn’t sign him sooner this spring than they did.

No matter, Martinez is with them now, doing what he’s done for a decade, which means hitting the ball hard. He didn’t help turn the Mets around all by himself, for sure. A lot has changed since rookie manager Carlos Mendoza moved Lindor to leadoff. The starting pitching has stabilized. Even Edwin Díaz finally gave them a ninth inning on Friday night for his first save since coming off the IL.

But in the moment, J.D. Martinez has been the crucial part of the story. Has been such a terrific baseball story for a long time. He didn’t just have himself a season after baseball gave him a second chance. He’s had 10.