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Columnist Bob Smizik: Martin's turnaround mirrors Pirates'

Thursday, July 01, 1999

By Bob Smizik, Post-Gazette Sports Columnist

It was the end of April, and the Pirates were going nowhere. So was Al Martin.

 

The team was three games under .500 at 9-12 and looking every bit the part of a club that was on pace to finish 69-93. Martin was batting .237 and looking every bit the part of the player the team had been trying to unload for almost a year.

Something had to be done. Manager Gene Lamont tinkered with the lineup. He moved Jason Kendall out of the leadoff position -- where he had been put because there didn't appear to be anyone on the team who could fill that role -- and replaced him with Martin.

Not to suggest the insertion of Martin in the top of the lineup was the sole reason for what has since transpired, but know this: The Pirates are 30-25 since the switch, and Martin has been a catalyst for this resurgence.

He surely was in the midst of things last night as the Pirates whacked the Philadelphia Phillies, 9-1, at Three Rivers.

It was a 2-0 game when Martin stepped to the plate in the fourth with the bases loaded. It was 5-0 after he scorched a line drive into the right-field corner. Two batters later, Brian Giles produced a three-run homer, the 22nd of the season allowed by hapless Philadelphia starter Chad Ogea.

"Al's was the big hit of the game," said Lamont. "He worked the count so Ogea had to throw him a good pitch."

Last night's role was slightly out of character for Martin, whose contribution has been scoring runs, not driving them in.

He's not your typical leadoff hitter. He strikes out too much and doesn't walk enough. In that respect, he's not unlike Tony Womack, who led off for the Pirates the two previous seasons. But with this difference. Despite all of Womack's base-stealing excellence, he scored a run every eight at-bats last season. Martin is scoring a run every 4.6 at-bats since moving into the No. 1 position.

A .290 batting average and 23 doubles -- third-best in the National League -- have something to do with that.

"I like hitting early in the lineup. That suits me better," said Martin. "I think Jim Leyland used me best. He hit me first and second and told me, `You know how to score runs. I don't care how you do it, but you have a knack for scoring.' "

It's a fact. Martin's on-base percentage is an unspectacular .351 -- also reminiscent of Womack -- but he manages to cross home plate with unusual frequency. While batting lower in the lineup in April, he scored two runs in 15 games. Since the switch, he has scored 43 runs in 48 games.

"I'm a guy who makes things happen," Martin said. "I have a knack for scoring runs. My whole career I've scored runs. I haven't done too well driving them in. But scoring runs -- for what ever reason -- is something I've been able to do."

Because he hit 18 home runs in 1996 -- and scored 101 runs -- while batting second almost exclusively, Martin was projected as a middle of the lineup guy on a team looking for power. It never worked out and was almost his undoing.

He hit third almost solely the next season with disappointing results. He flopped around between second, third and sixth last year, and his play became so uninspired Lamont reduced him to a platoon role.

Martin snapped, proclaiming, "I'm not going to be a platoon player here or anywhere else."

This out-of-character remark thrust him into fan disfavor and didn't make him too popular with Lamont, either. General Manager Cam Bonifay worked hard to trade Martin. But Martin's lack of production and a contract that had two more years to run at about $6 million didn't help.

A deal with Arizona was hatched in spring training but, when Bernard Gilkey refused to be part of it, the trade collapsed.

How fortunate for Martin and the Pirates.

Off-season laser eye surgery has helped Martin at the plate but even more in the outfield.

"I'm seeing a different player out there," Lamont said. "He's seeing the ball much better and getting a better jump."

Martin's days as a Pirates no longer have a number attached to them. He's gone from an overpaid non-producer to a player who's earning his salary and could be part of the team's future.


Bob Smizik can be reached bsmizik@post-gazette.com.



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