DETROIT — It was a pitch that J.D. Martinez saw in slow motion. The result, unforgettable. Seven weeks of frustration and separation from the lineup and his teammates evaporated. The anticipation of Martinez’s return had been building for some time, and as he stepped to the plate, the standing ovation he received was overwhelming.
“It really did (feel surreal),” Martinez said with a grin. “I think it did just because I wasn't expecting to get that kind of ovation that they gave me when I was walking in (to the box). That was awesome. I couldn't ask for — if I could thank the fans individually I'd thank them. That was really cool.”
Martinez was not in the starting lineup. He was supposed to have the entire night off, actually, but manager Brad Ausmus decided to keep him available off the bench. Seven innings went by and the usually hot offense had gone cold, limited to four hits with Sale mowing down the lineup. In a 1-1 tie, the team needed Martinez to come through after not having seen major league pitching for nearly two months.
Before his name was even announced at the ballpark, the crowd had begun to make noise. It had been loud all night, but the moment Martinez grabbed a bat and emerged from the dugout, the fans began to roar. The announcement brought them to their feet and the White Sox’s catcher Dioner Navarro gave him a hug. Sale tipped his cap in acknowledgement.
Martinez wasn’t sure whether to step into the batter’s box or not. He’d never been in that unique situation before. The right fielder has become beloved among fans, but this was something else. He had a game plan going into the at-bat, but the ovation had him so “pumped up” that he blanked.
“In my mind I had my plan off of him and then I got caught up in the moment and I was like 'You know what? Forget this. See ball, hit ball. Look for the ball and just be ready to hit it,’” he said. “I saw it nice and slow and I just said 'This is it.' I mean, I just knew.”
But what no one was expecting was for Martinez to crush the one and only pitch he saw 434 feet into the left-center field bushes as a proclamation of his return. His teammates, and the fans, went into a frenzy of joy. Martinez’s head was spinning as he rounded the bases, everything a blur.
The adrenaline of the initial ovation blended into the rush of the perfect home run at the ideal time in a key moment of the game. The energy from the crowd that Martinez had fed off of in stepping to the plate changed his approach entirely and brought about one of the most memorable moments of the year for the Tigers.
Stepping back into the dugout, fans began chanting Martinez’s name demanding a curtain call. Sheepishly, he obliged after much prodding from Justin Verlander and his teammates — panicking in the process because he wasn’t sure what to do exactly. A step to the top of the dugout steps and a wave to the fans in appreciation, Martinez returned to the confines of the dugout.
He didn’t take over in right field in the top of the ninth. Wednesday’s game may not have been the start that some hoped for, but the finale was more than worth the wait. And for Martinez, he’s just overjoyed to have been able to contribute in such a way that sealed an eight-game win streak for the team.
“That was probably the coolest moment of my career, right there. And I think when we were in the playoffs in 2014 when I hit the double off of Britton to right-center. I think those two, just because when you get the crowd into it, it just makes it that much more special. That's what you play for.”