Martin familiarizing himself with Pirates' arms
LAKELAND, Fla. -- The World Baseball Classic is under way, and Russell Martin isn't behind the plate for Team Canada. Nor is he playing shortstop for his native country. He played for the Pirates on Saturday afternoon when they engaged the Tigers in a good ol' plain Spring Training game, and he wasn't the catcher or the shortstop for them, either.
That tempest in a teaspoon saga has passed, though not soon enough. Now that Martin has excused himself from the Classic and all the low-grade international furor has subsided, he has resumed familiarizing himself with the Pirates' pitchers and preparing his swing for National League duty.
He accomplished the latter on Saturday by doing something quite American League, serving as the Pirates' designated hitter -- hardly controversial, but not insignificant. Martin had missed six games because of shoulder inflammation that developed before and during the team's first game, on Feb. 23.
That Martin played -- or merely swung a bat -- moved him closer to active duty. He batted four times, walked once, flied out twice and lost a double to a diving, Brooks Robinson-type play made by Miguel Cabrera. Martin emerged with no new or old physical issues. He doesn't expect to play against the Astros on Sunday because he has yet to throw since the inflammation subsided, but he ought to be masked and wearing all that gear by the middle of the week.
The missed time isn't problematic in regard to his hitting. Martin has ample time to reset, refine and polish the swing that last year produced a career-high 21 home runs and 53 RBIs in 133 games and 485 at-bats for the Yankees. But the minor shoulder malady has robbed him of in-game opportunities to learn about the men he is to catch in what will be his eighth full season in the big leagues.
"I'll get there," Martin said on Saturday morning. "I've caught a lot of them already, but only two in a game. The only thing when I caught them on the side was, I'd just roll the ball away after receiving a pitch. I didn't throw it back."
But catchers need uncompromised game time with their pitchers to learn the tendencies and pitches and preferences. Moreover, pitches might move differently when thrown with game-situation purpose. Sideline or bullpen throwing has a different objective.
Martin acknowledges that much. Just the same, what he has seen thus far of the Pirates' staff has encouraged him.
"It's exciting ... the kind of young arms we have," he said. "We have talent here, not just pitching. I wouldn't be surprised if we shocked a lot of people."
Martin's career clearly has taken a turn toward the quieter side of the game, though the outcry following his withdrawal from the World Baseball Classic made substantial noise. The Yankees and the frenzy that accompanies them, whether they're in Sarasota, Cincinnati or St. Pete, is in his immediate baseball past, and he is two summers removed from the glare of Tinseltown.
After seven years playing on different coasts with bright lights focused on nearly every step and executed play, Martin is to work in the relative peacefulness of what was identified not too long ago as "America's most livable city." If he can deal with bridges -- Pittsburgh has 88 of them -- and doesn't mind the pre-eminence of the Steelers, he'll be comfortable in what may be his baseball home for two years.
With the Pirates bent on improving their receiving and their defense against the run, Martin signed a two-year, $17 million contract shortly after the 2012 season. He was certain that no other club would match the offer, hence the quick signing, though he would have been pleased to return to the Yankees had they demonstrated the interest.
"Lots of expectations there," he said. "It was different from L.A. and probably different from what it'll be like here, but it was fun, and I enjoyed myself. I used to be all about performance and results. I enjoyed myself when the results were good. Sometimes it's hard to control it. You can control your preparation. You can control your own effort. But not the results."
Now, as one of the genuine veterans on his new team, he may not control more. But he is likely to have greater influence. His status as a young veteran -- he turned 30 last month -- appealed to the Pirates.
"We thought the need to solidify our team behind the plate was the top priority," manager Clint Hurdle said. "He was the top candidate, and he separated himself from the others by a lot. I saw a lot of Russell when I was with the Rockies and he was with the Dodgers. Actually, I saw too much of him. He was always doing something good against us.
"Now we just want him to bring it here for us."