Victor Martinez(notes) snatched a molded piece of plastic from his mouth and tossed it to the ground. He started wearing the see-through mouthguard during spring training, same as a handful of other baseball players who sought better balance and superior blood flow and all sorts of other snake-oil specialties.
Only Martinez, the Cleveland Indians' catcher, sought no naturopathic remedy between his teeth. He needed to break a habit.
"I bite my nails when I play," Martinez said. "Since I was a little kid. I don't know why. I wanted to stop. I guess it's growing up."
After last season, the worst and most injury-plagued of Martinez's career, he took account of his life. Martinez, 30, was a two-time All-Star with a lifetime batting average over .300. He hit for power, too, and from both sides of the plate, making him among the most feared at his position. Still, something wasn't there – a professional fulfillment and a desire to better himself as a person likewise.
So Martinez said, first, no more nubby nails. Then, he resolved, fewer strikeouts and more walks. Finally, kaput to injuries.
And here he is, June nearly a week away, with fingernails that could get a proper manicure, a walk-to-strikeout ratio like Albert Pujols'(notes) and not a sore bone in his body. Best of all is Martinez's batting average: .391, and before an 0 for 4 on Friday, it sat at an even .400.
"The last one was Ted Williams, right?" Martinez asked, and, yes, he is correct: It's been 68 years since Williams finished the season hitting .406, and though George Brett and Tony Gwynn(notes) and Rod Carew and John Olerud and Nomar Garciaparra(notes) flirted with it into the dog days, all finished with a batting average that began with a 3, and there is nothing immortal in that.
Which is why even now, with four-plus months left in the season, the figure titillates. Imagine: A player goes 2 for 5 every day. That is .400. And if he has one bad day – one collar, or even a 1 for 5 – then it's .400 no longer. Forget a home run chase. The pursuit of baseball perfection is a man's drive to .400.
Martinez doesn't delude himself. His batting average on balls in play is an unsustainable .404. Even with only 16 strikeouts, the seventh fewest in the American League among regulars, Martinez whiffs too much to have a reasonable shot at .400. He knows he's as likely to match Williams as he was to see LeBron James, his brother in Cleveland heartbreak, hit that remarkable game winner Friday.
"It's still early," Martinez said. "I understand that some of it is luck. If you don't have luck, you're going nowhere."
Luck did bring Martinez back healthy, following a 2008 in which he was half a man. Really. Martinez's achy left hamstring rendered the lower half of his body almost useless, and loose particles in his right elbow left his throwing arm limp and his swing flaccid. Elbow surgery spared Martinez going any longer without a home run, as he did in the first 2½ months of 2008.
In September, Martinez returned with enough power to remind the Indians what they missed. And now, he's blistering more than 25 percent of his batted balls for line drives with the type of stroke that leaves teammates in awe and the Indians wondering how they can be the AL's worst team.
"He's hit for power, gone the other way, hit against the shift, hit from both sides of the plate," Indians utilityman Mark DeRosa(notes) said. "It's an absolute clinic watching him. I knew he was a good hitter. He's got that reputation. I didn't know how gifted he was."
Last week against Tampa Bay, the Rays employed a shift to contend with Martinez's preference to pull as a left-handed hitter. It was similar to the kind they use with David Ortiz(notes), Jim Thome(notes) and Jason Giambi(notes), where the shortstop moves to the right side of the infield, only Rays third baseman Evan Longoria(notes) stayed in his usual position. Martinez scoffed at the shift and pounded an opposite-field single to the exact location Rays shortstop Jason Bartlett(notes) would normally play.
"He didn't just accidentally hit it there," Indians manager Eric Wedge said.
There is no method to this seven-week hot streak. Martinez said his eyes are no better. He's not studying any more video than he usually does. He hasn't found a magic potion or a lucky meal. And it isn't the mouthguard.
He does feel fresh. Martinez's gradual shift from catcher to first base has accelerated this season. He has split time, ceding about half the catching duties to Kelly Shoppach(notes). The Indians' prospect, Carlos Santana, is also a switch-hitting, high-walk, low-strikeout, big-power catcher who figures to be in the everyday lineup by 2011 at latest.
In theory, the move to first should prolong Martinez's career. Where that is, Martinez doesn't know. The Indians are unlikely to trade him this year, a cheap 2010 option making him all the more valuable, though beyond that Martinez is unwilling to speculate.
He'd rather savor right now.
"I'm just not missing the ball," Martinez said. "I can't remember being locked in like this. To do this in the big leagues, it does not come easy. It takes work.
"You just feel good, and you take it."
Whatever it is giving, Martinez is thankful. He's not likely to say no anytime soon.
- Ted Williams