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Friday, September 28, 2012
Russell showing September muscle

By Wallace Matthews
ESPNNewYork.com

TORONTO -- By the most traditional of baseball yardsticks, Russell Martin is suffering through a horrendous season at the plate.

His .212 batting average places him at the bottom, beneath 15 other major league catchers with at least 400 plate appearances.

His slugging percentage, .393, beats out only one AL catcher, Jesus Montero, the kid the New York Yankees gave up on to get Michael Pineda, and his on-base average of .310 is also near the bottom of the pack.

Russell Martin
It's not saying much, but Russell Martin's numbers compare favorably to Alex Rodriguez's this season.

But those numbers might not be indicative of the kind of year Russell Martin has had, and certainly not of the way he is finishing up this 2012 season.

Martin's three-run home run Friday night against the Toronto Blue Jays, in front of a hometown crowd that included his dad, some cousins and, he estimated, about a dozen friends and family members, not only busted open a 3-1 game that would wind up a crucial 11-4 Yankees victory, it also reminded you that a batter need not hit for a high average to make a significant impact.

The home run was Martin's 20th of the season, the three RBIs his 50th, 51st and 52nd. Not to compare their lifelong body of work, but the home run gave Martin two more than Alex Rodriguez for the season and with the RBIs, he now has just four less. He also has one more double than the Yankees' $275 million third baseman.

And one more thing: He's done it in 38 fewer at-bats.

So before we condemn Russell Martin's 2012 to the purgatory of hellaciously bad seasons, let's ask ourselves this: If he's having a terrible year, what kind of a year is A-Rod having?

The truth, of course, is that neither of them has been very good consistently this season, nor, really, has any Yankees regular with the exception of Derek Jeter.

Robinson Cano has been up-and-down -- currently, he is way, way up, his two hits Friday night giving him 10 in 20 at-bats over the five games of this road trip so far, although the severity of the hand injury he suffered after being hit by a pitch in the sixth inning has yet to be determined -- and despite his team-leading 40 home runs, Curtis Granderson has had the kind of season more closely associated with an Adam Dunn or even a Dave Kingman.

The injured Mark Teixeira gets an incomplete, although we haven't forgotten his struggles the first two months of the season nor his stubbornness in continuing to bang his head against the wall of the shift, and while Nick Swisher is hitting well now, it hasn't always been thus.

So Martin, who has suffered unfairly by comparison with the atypical production (for a catcher) by Jorge Posada, has hardly been the only offender in the Yankees' lineup this season.

And currently, he is among the most dangerous hitters they can send out there.

I asked Martin after the game if he felt his batting average was an accurate representation of the kind of season he has had.

"I mean, stats really don't lie," he said. "But I feel like overall I've hit the ball better than my average is showing. But it is what it is at this point. Right now, pretty much all I care about is what my average is in September. I don't even want to know what it is. But it's September, so it's time to get going."

Whether Martin wants to know it or not, here goes: For the month of September, he is batting .274 with six home runs and 16 RBIs. He has saved his best hitting of the season for the time when his team needs it most.

"He's been great," Joe Girardi said. "He's been kind of a bad-luck guy, too, when you look at some of the balls he's hit this season."

There is some evidence to back up Girardi's claim that Martin's average has to some extent been unfavorably influenced by luck. His BABIP -- batting average on balls in play -- is a miserable .219 when the league average this season is .288. It indicates that, against all conventional baseball wisdom, Martin has been hittin' 'em where they are.

And as a former good-glove, no-hit catcher during his playing days, Girardi can appreciate how difficult it has been for Martin not to let his struggles at the plate this season -- getting his average above .200 was like an Everest he could not scale until Sept. 5 -- affect the way he called a game or handled the pitchers.

"I never saw him really take his at-bats behind the plate. I never saw him visibly show pain or frustration," Girardi said. "He would just put his gear on and go back and catch and focus on what he needed to do back there. I've been really impressed with how he's handled it, and that's allowed him to hit better in the second half."

On a night in which Hiroki Kuroda was subpar, again, Martin's three-run blast off Jason Frasor afforded the Yankees some breathing room, especially knowing as they did that the Baltimore Orioles were in the process of steamrolling the Red Sox to stay on their tails in the AL East race.

Martin also combined with Rodriguez on a key play in the second inning, when, having been flashed a sign by A-Rod, he fired down to third to catch Yunel Escobar leaning to complete a strikeout-throwout double play.

"I'm just trying to make a bad season a bit better," Martin said. "This is the first time I actually had struggled this much the entire year. But I'm feeling better now, and anything I can do to help the team win, that's my main focus."

Martin attributes some of his September resurgence to Girardi's careful handling of his catchers, working backup Chris Stewart in at least once a week to relieve some of the burden on Martin.

"I don't know how many games I've caught this year," he said, "But I definitely feel fresher than in the past. I feel as good now as I did in June."

For the record, Friday night was Martin's 112th game behind the plate this season, just six fewer than he caught last year but a couple dozen fewer than he did when he routinely caught between 130 and 140 a year for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

He is also energized by the high-pressure end of the Yankees' season, in which every game on the out of-town scoreboard seems to have a direct effect on the playoff picture.

"I've never seen anything like this before," he said. "It's fun, though. It makes it exciting every day. The Orioles aren't going anywhere and neither are we. It's high-intensity. It makes it fun to come to the park every day."

Earlier in the season, Russell Martin hated to look up at the scoreboard for fear of seeing his own batting average. Now, he allows himself a peek every now and again, no longer dreading what he might see.