Why Russell Martin is the Pirates’ Early Postseason MVP

Russell Martin NLDS
Russell Martin has made a huge October impact at the plate — both catching and hitting. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Russell Martin has made only one egregious mistake this postseason, and it wasn’t even on the field. His cell phone went off in the press conference.

“Phone rings. Nice. Awesome,” Martin joked as the noise interrupted his first answer.

It was a rookie mistake from the Pirates player with the most playoff experience (37 games). It also ends our list of complaints about Martin’s October performance.

He drove in two important runs in NLDS Game 3, one to give the Pirates a 6th-inning lead and another to supply them insurance in the Bottom 8th, a final run that put the Bucs up 5-3.

“The confidence level [of this team] is high,” Martin said. “And the stakes couldn’t be any higher.”

Martin is now for 5-for-13 and tied for a playoff-high 6 RBI. He has also caught every October inning for a pitching staff that has held strong offenses of Cincinnati and St. Louis to an average of 3.75 runs per game.

“He gives every man that takes the ball and gets on that mound the feeling that they’re the best out there,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “Not just the best right now — the best.”

In Game 3, Martin and pitcher Francisco Liriano battled through a start in which Hurdle admits he “didn’t have his best stuff” to keep the Cardinals scoreless through four innings and eventually earn a quality start (6 IP, 3 H, 2 ER, 2 BB, 5 K).

[In fact, Liriano could have had a scoreless start if third-base umpire Paul Nauert had made a correct ruling in the 5th inning. Martin framed a called third strike then fired to third base. His throw beat Jon Jay to the base and the tag was applied, but Nauert incorrectly called Jay safe. Next batter Carlos Beltran tied the game with a two-out, two-RBI single.]

Either way, Martin was there behind the plate to never allow St. Louis to gain a lead.

“You saw that repeated today with the number of balls that were blocked,” Hurdle said. “The game calling and the ability to come up with a Plan B on occasion… he’s very creative back there.”

Go-Ahead RBI

Russell Martin
Russell Martin’s two RBI tied him with Carlos Beltran for the playoff lead. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Martin did not have the obvious offensive impact as in his two-homer Wild Card performance, but clutch hits helped turn the game in the Pirates’ favor.

Starting pitcher Joe Kelly struck out Martin twice but did not get the chance to pitch to him again with the score tied in the 6th. Kelly gave up a double to Marlon Byrd that put two runners in scoring position. St. Louis manager Mike Matheny called for Pedro Alvarez to be intentionally walked and called on ground-ball aficionado Seth Maness to draw a possible double play from Martin.

Instead, Martin drove Maness’ first pitch deep into center field. It was more than long enough to score Andrew McCutchen from third base and put the Pirates ahead. The key for Martin was remembering seeing Maness pound his sinker in their last matchup, when he got a base hit.

“I was just going to look for a sinker, make sure it was up a little bit,” Martin said. “It didn’t have much angle to it, and I was able to lift it into the air.”

Squeezing Out Insurance

His next time up in the Bottom 8th had slightly less pressure attached. Pedro Alvarez had just bounced a go-ahead RBI to the right side off shutdown left-hander Kevin Siegrist.

Martin started the at-bat by trying to catch the Cardinals off-guard: he laid down a squeeze bunt as Marlon Byrd sprinted down the third-base line. The bunt dropped foul, though, so the bunt sign was removed.

Didn’t matter. Martin lined a high fastball from Siegrist into left field, extending the Pirates’ lead to 5-3.

Surviving the Playoff Grind

Russell Martin slide
Martin caught more innings this year than in either season with the Yankees. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Martin has been successful through four postseason games, both offensively and defensively. His manager especially appreciates the veteran presence the catcher brings.

“The calming influence that he can provide for pitchers with limited or no postseason experience obviously will play,” Hurdle said. “They know that they can throw anything they want with conviction.”

Plus Martin can certainly buy strikes. He framed two critical strikeouts in Gerrit Cole’s Game Two start and navigated home plate umpire Jerry Layne’s odd strike zone Sunday.

The question now becomes, can he keep it up? Catching so many high-pressure innings can wear anyone down, and if the Pirates can beat the Cardinals once more, the 30-year-old Martin will be feeling the pain of many more blocked pitches.

“Right now it’s all the energy from the crowd,” Martin said. “I can take a ball after ball off the chest or the throat or whatever. It doesn’t matter.”

Though Martin did not have a strong offensive season (.226/.327/.377), Hurdle said getting four days off in the week before the Wild Card “gave him an ability to catch his breath a little bit” heading into October.

“I think the wear and tear kind of wore him down this year,” Hurdle said.

That wear and tear doesn’t stop in the postseason, but Martin putting the Pirates one victory from the NLCS eases his soreness.

“Feels better after a win,” Martin said. “That’s for sure.”

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How does one logically choose an MVP between Martin, Byrd and Alvarez?

And I could easily include Cutch and his .583 BA, too. Even though he had a TOOTBLAN, Pirates don’t score in 8th w/out his lead-off double.

Then there’s Liriano and Cole to consider, too.

Bottom line is Pirates have several players raising their game to meet the challenges of October baseball. Just as EVERY successful team has done in the month of October in years past.

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