V-Mart goes deep in return to Tigers' lineup

V-Mart goes deep in return to Tigers' lineup

DETROIT -- Tigers manager Brad Ausmus had two lineups ready for Thursday's series opener against the Rays. One had Victor Martinez as the designated hitter and J.D. Martinez in left field. The other had Victor Martinez out and Rajai Davis in his place.

Ausmus wanted to see how Martinez looked in batting practice before deciding which lineup. Martinez's last swing pretty much made up his mind.

"I think the last swing he took in batting practice, he hit the ball about 12 rows deep in the left-center field bleachers," Ausmus said. "He certainly looked fine."

Said Martinez: "He told me, 'You can play now.'"

His next time at the plate, he didn't hit the ball quite as deep, but his two-run home run in the first inning wasn't far off. It was a no-doubt drive that cleared the visiting bullpen in left-center field, landing a few rows into the seats.

After three days out of the lineup with soreness in his left side, Martinez picked up where he left off, turning on Erik Bedard's 88-mph fastball for his 21st home run of the year.

"It feels great to be back on the field," Martinez said. "Especially when you do something to help the team, it feels even better."

Considering he entered Thursday with a .364 career average against the Rays -- his highest mark against any American League opponent -- to go with 21 doubles, nine homers, 47 RBIs and a .940 OPS in 269 career at-bats, his return was especially welcome, even after the Tigers swept the A's without him.

Even with the time off, Martinez stood fourth among AL hitters in home runs and batting average. His 2-for-4 performance bumped his average to .327, pushing him past Seattle's Robinson Cano and into third behind Jose Altuve and Adrian Beltre. His .989 OPS, meanwhile, trails only Mike Trout.

"He's arguably the best hitter in the game right now," Max Scherzer said. "Do we really need to have a conversation whether he deserves to be in the All-Star Game? He's absolutely a nightmare at the plate right now for other pitchers. Every at-bat, he's grinding out."

He showed no difference Thursday in approach. After the game, he felt little difference.

"I feel really good," Martinez said. "We'll see how I feel tomorrow."

How he feels over the days after that could well determine how comfortable he feels taking part in the All-Star Game -- if he makes the team. Even with his numbers, he's not assuming he makes the team. Nelson Cruz is expected to win the fan balloting at DH, leaving Martinez's spot on the bench up to voting among players.

He has one fan in his corner. His nine-year-old son, Victor Jose, is hoping he makes it so they can go.

"Believe it or not, man, last year watching the Home Run Derby, he told me these words: 'Daddy, you better make it next year, because I don't want to sit my butt on the couch watching the Home Run Derby on TV again,'" Martinez said. "I'm like, 'Really? It's that easy, kid?' We'll see what happens."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.