J.D. Martinez To Verlander: "Dude, I Don't Know How We Didn't Win" With Tigers

The two reminisced about their time in Detroit during the All-Star Game.

Will Burchfield
July 20, 2018 - 6:21 pm

© Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

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For years, J.D. Martinez walked down the player's tunnel beneath Comerica Park and turned left toward the Tigers' clubhouse. On Friday afternoon he turned right. 

"It's just weird, coming in and going right instead of left and going to this clubhouse instead of the other one," said Martinez, pulling on a blue Red Sox uniform in front of a bland visitor's locker. "I didn’t even know what this clubhouse looked like, really. It’s cool to be back, but it’s done. It’s one of those things where you kind of gotta move on." 

Martinez is with Boston now, the best team in baseball and one of the favorites to win the World Series this fall. It wasn't long ago he was in a similar situation in Detroit. As much as he prefers to focus on the present, he can't help but think about what could have been with the Tigers. 

It still gnaws at him that they never got over the hump. 

"Yeah, I was talking about it actually with Verlander when we were at the All-Star Game," Martinez said. "It was just one of those things where it’s like, 'Dude, I don’t know how we didn’t win then."

The Tigers claimed the AL Central in 2014, Martinez's first year with the team, but were swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Orioles. Detroit's starting pitchers that series? 2013 Cy Young winner Max Scherzer in Game 1, 2011 Cy Young winner Justin Verlander in Game 2 and 2012 Cy Young winner David Price in Game 3. 

The team crumbled to a last-place finish in 2015 after a sell-off at the trade deadline, but rebounded in 2016. They entered the final weekend of the season a half game behind in the wild card race, only to lose two of three to the lowly Braves and wind up on the outside looking in. 

2017, of course, was when it all came to an end. Martinez was the first star to be traded, and several more followed. His return to Comerica Park is a reminder of what could have been. 

Asked what kept those Tigers teams from going all the way, Martinez was at a loss. 

"I don’t know, you tell me. I don’t know. It’s just one of those things where we didn’t get hot at the right time," he said, before searching for another explanation that wasn't there. 

It's unlikely Martinez would be where he is today -- leading the majors in home runs (29) and RBI (80) and making $22 million per year -- if the Tigers hadn't signed him in spring training of 2014 shortly after he'd been released by the Astros. He grabbed hold of that second chance and quickly turned it into an everyday job in the bigs. He hasn't looked back since. 

His growth over three-and-a-half years in Detroit is part of the reason he took last season's trade so hard. 

"This is home for me," Martinez said. "This is my home club. This is the team that raised me." 

When he signed with the Tigers, at the time 25 years old and touting a career average of .250, Martinez was in the process of rebuilding his swing. It was an attempt to save his career, and it just so happened that one of his inspirations for change was right in front of him: Miguel Cabrera. That made a complicated adjustment a tad easier. 

"It was just a blessing to be on the same team of the guy that I was studying, the guy that I was kind of modeling my swing after at the time. I think that was definitely a benefit for me," Martinez said.

That swing has since produced 157 homers, 99 of which came with the Tigers. Several of them were of the dramatic variety, including a pinch-hit, go-ahead blast off Chris Sale in a triumphant return from the DL late in the 2016 season.

For Tigers fans, it's probably the most memorable moment of Martinez's tenure. Not for Martinez. 

"It’d be the playoffs," he said. 

That double versus the Orioles, the one in the ninth inning of Game 3 that brought the Tigers within a run?

"Yeah," Martinez said, "off Britton." 

"And they couldn't score you from second," a reporter reminded him, as if a reminder was needed. 

Martinez smiled ruefully and shook his head. 

"Yep," he said. "Thanks." 

With that, he was off to the field for batting practice, his league-leading numbers in tow, chasing the championship that eluded him in Detroit.