Baseball / Sports

Tigers' Victor Martinez makes 35 look like the new 25

MINNEAPOLIS -- As Victor Martinez took his decisive cuts Sunday, twice launching the ball to deep left at Target Field to drive in the biggest runs in the Tigers' 13-4 victory, Paul Molitor watched from the first-base dugout.

Whether he realized it or not, Molitor might have been watching an incarnation of himself: The great hitter at 35 and beyond.

Molitor is a coach with the Twins. When he was a player, what he did from the year he turned 35 and beyond probably put him in the Hall of Fame.

In 1991, in the season he turned 35, Molitor led the American League in hits and triples. He led the AL in hits twice after that. In 1996, the year he turned 40, Molitor amassed a career-high 225 hits.

Martinez will be 35 throughout this season. His two-run homer in the sixth, which gave the Tigers a 7-3 lead, was his 25th of the season. That matches his career high, set in 2007 with Cleveland. And there are five weeks left in the season.

Asked what it tells him that he has already matched his career high, Martinez said: "I don't know. I know my game. I understood my game pretty early in my career. I never try and hit homers. I always focus to put a good swing on the ball, and anything can happen."

Martinez, who is eligible for free agency after this season, has put up the evidence that he is worth another big contract. He has mastered the difficult art of being the designated hitter.

With three hits Sunday, he moved into second place in the AL batting race at .328, with almost no leg hits. Houston's Jose Altuve, who gets a lot of legs hits, leads the league at .334.

Martinez drove in four runs to give him 84 for the season, five behind Miguel Cabrera for the team lead. Martinez has accomplished this RBI total despite drawing 22 intentional walks, the most in the league.

Martinez might not be aware of many of his statistical feats. He is trying to get to the World Series for the first time. The Tigers are two games behind first-place Kansas City in the AL Central.

They did gain a game this day. In Sunday's Kansas City Star, the headline on the Royals' latest win was "Unstoppable." On Sunday, the Royals were stopped, 3-1, by Texas right-hander Scott Baker, who won a big-league start for the first time in three years.

"Like I try to tell the young players, we don't have tomorrow," Martinez said. "We are playing every game like it's the last game of the season. We go out there and give it all.

"The situation we're in is tough. But it's just two games, and the good thing about it is we face the Royals a few more times (two more series, six games total). We don't need to be paying attention to what they're doing. We need to focus on ourselves."

Focus. That is the word that manager Brad Ausmus and the Tigers players keep using for Martinez. To an extent few batters can muster, he concentrates on each pitch like he is trying for a 30-foot birdie on the back nine on Sunday at Augusta to move into a tie for the lead in the Masters.

In the fifth inning Sunday, with the score 3-3, Martinez batted with none out and runners on first and second. He fell behind right-hander Kyle Gibson 1-2, then fouled four pitches.

On the eighth pitch of the at-bat, Martinez launched a long opposite-field drive high off the left-field wall. It just missed being a homer, and because the runners had to hold up to make sure the ball wasn't caught, it was a long single. It put the Tigers ahead to stay.

Ted Williams won batting titles when he was 39 and 40. "He became perhaps the best old hitter of the century," John Updike wrote in 1960. Molitor gave us an idea what Updike meant. Now Martinez might be, too.

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