Commentary

Martin to Yankees: I'm your man

Russell rocks behind plate -- and at it -- in Game 1, making his case to stick around

Updated: October 8, 2012, 3:51 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

BALTIMORE -- Russell Martin pushed through the doors of the Camden Yards clubhouse, turned left on his walk toward the team bus, and removed his headphones to express his desire to be a New York Yankee for the balance of his career.

Martin is a free agent at season's end, a catcher in need of a contract. "Those types of things I'm really not concerned with right now," he told a reporter along for the walk. "If I play well throughout the postseason, obviously it's going to put me in a better position."

[+] EnlargeRussell Martin
AP Photo/Nick WassBombers backstop Russell Martin made his mark defensively throughout Game 1 ...

A better position at the negotiating table, he meant. A better position to get the deal he wants from the only team he wants to play for, the team he just led to a Game 1 American League Division Series victory over the Baltimore Orioles with a destructive ninth-inning homer off an indestructible closer, Jim Johnson.

"The point now is to play to win, to play a team game, and hopefully that's good enough for [a new deal]," Martin told ESPNNewYork.com. "It's a great place to play. You know you're going to be in it here, and you know you're always going to be playing for something.

"The Yankees is the place to be. It's the best place I've ever played."

Martin was reminded that he was on the fast track to the big time in Hollywood, that he was a 24-year-old All-Star for the Los Angeles Dodgers with face-of-the-franchise potential.

"Playing in L.A. was great, too," Martin said, "but this is the ultimate. It doesn't get any better. Playing for the Yankees is like playing for the Montreal Canadiens."

It was a fitting reference, too, as his old man once played the saxophone in a Montreal subway as a means of supporting his family. It wasn't Broadway, Russell Sr. said, but the hours were flexible enough to allow the father to teach the son how to throw and catch and hit a baseball.

[+] EnlargeRussell Martin
William Perlman/The Star-Ledger/US Presswire... then let his bat do the talking in the ninth inning.

"When I text him," Russell Sr. said in an interview last year, "I call him Rock Steady, like the Aretha Franklin song, because he's rock steady behind the plate."

Sunday night, after a rain delay of nearly two and a half hours, Martin shepherded CC Sabathia through a brilliant performance, putting on a defensive clinic long before he settled things with his bat. In the fifth inning of a tense 2-2 game, the kind of game the Orioles have made a living on all year, Lew Ford followed Chris Davis' leadoff single with a squibber to the first-base side of the mound.

"Off the bat it just kept getting away from me, further and further," Martin said. The ball was wet, and Sabathia was in no position to pick it up and make the play.

"When he throws," the catcher said, "he kind of falls off to his right side. I knew off the bat that I was going to be the one to have to make that play."

Martin chased after the ball as Ford sprinted down the line. "I was kind of in no-man's land," he said. In his mind, Sabathia had already conceded the hit. The fans who had been waving their orange towels like mad, fans who hadn't seen a home playoff game since 1997, believed it was first and second with nobody out.

But Martin made a remarkably athletic play for a man weighed down by such burdensome gear. He scooped up the ball and fired frantically as he did a face-plant into the grass, hoping against hope Mark Teixeira could scoop it successfully before Ford touched the bag.

And sure enough, Tex did what Tex usually does, and the Orioles were penalized with a painful out. "It definitely was a big play," Martin said. "It changed that inning."

So did a block of a wild Sabathia pitch in the dirt with men on first and third later in the fifth, one out and Nate McLouth at the plate. Martin looked like a goalie for the hometown Canadiens on that one, a chest save and a beaut that kept the runner at third and ultimately allowed Sabathia to strike out McLouth, looking, on a full-count fastball.

Martin had spent the most of the night on his knees, keeping everything in front of him, before he took off his mask and stepped into the batter's box to open the ninth, score still tied. The Orioles had an historic record of 29-9 in one-run games, a streak of a 16 consecutive extra-inning victories, and a closer on the mound who hadn't blinked in forever.

This was Baltimore's game, until it wasn't. Martin worked the count to 2-0, and then waited for Johnson to make a rare mistake. "I definitely wasn't thinking home run," the catcher said.

No, he was merely looking for something over the plate that he could hit with authority. "In that situation he just left a fastball up," Martin said, "and I put good wood on it."

The ball sailed high over the left-field wall, making Martin the first Yankee since Roger Maris in 1961 to hit a go-ahead homer in the ninth inning or later in a postseason road game. This was Martin's third dramatic endgame blast of 2012, a season otherwise defined by his staggering failures at the plate. The catcher was hitting .198 entering the final month, and only a September surge left him with a .211 batting average at year's end.

But Martin wasn't afraid of the ninth-inning moment Sunday night, just as he wasn't afraid to replace Jorge Posada in 2011.

"You either want to be in that situation, or you don't want to be in it," Martin said. "I love being in that situation."

He has loved being a Yankee, too, after a serious hip injury and declining production cut short his time in L.A. Martin got through knee surgery after signing with the Yanks, embraced a mixed-martial arts training regimen, lost weight and rediscovered his passion for the game.

In the end, Martin had come too far in New York to let his offensive struggles ruin his 2012.

"He's struggled all year," Sabathia said, "but his attitude has never changed."

The pitcher and the catcher executed a near-flawless game plan on the defensive side of the ball before Martin went deep. He'd delivered 21 homers across the regular season, his only saving grace, but even the most dramatic among them never felt anything like this.

Martin's shot set off a five-run ninth, and made the catcher a Yankees postseason hero for the first time. So nobody was talking about the .211 average as Martin made his way through the bowels of Camden Yards and toward the team bus.

The grown-up kid from Montreal was loving life with baseball's Canadiens, and hoping he might remain the man behind the Yankees' mask for many Octobers to come.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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