This is a different September for Russell Martin and Justin Morneau, two members of what is surely the golden generation of Canadian-born major-leaguers.
It is a Pittsburgh Pirates September. It is time to help a city slake a 21-year playoff thirst – which would leave the Kansas City Royals and Toronto Blue Jays with the two longest playoff droughts in the majors – and time to burnish their reputations.
Neither is ready to slip into his dotage, but both have seen a significant change in role over the 2013 season. Martin is no longer a guy the New York Yankees couldn’t wait to get rid of (the line forms on the right for teams that miscalculated on his value) and Morneau is no longer the Minnesota Twins lifer. Instead, he’s a hired gun, preparing for free agency.
“Russ very quickly became the guy everybody in this clubhouse looked to,” said Pirates outfielder Travis Snider, formerly of the Blue Jays. “He and Justin are two good ol’ Canadian boys. They’re positive guys, who are all about the clubhouse vibe. Justin came in here and it wasn’t, ‘Hey, look at me.’ It was, ‘Okay, what can I do to help us win a ball game?’”
The rigours of the season might be catching up to Martin – the 30-year-old native of Toronto, who grew up in Chelsea, Que., is hitting .178 since the end of July, and has developed a knee irritation – but there is little doubt that the two-year, $17-million (U.S.) contract given him by the Pirates has been one of the team’s best investments. Martin is a goaltender behind the plate, and going into the final week of the regular season had thrown out 41 per cent of opposition base-runners, to boot.
“A lot of us throw breaking pitches you need to bury in the dirt, and with Russell, you don’t ever think about it,” pitcher A.J. Burnett said. “He gets that competitive look when there’s a runner on third or in scoring position. You just make your pitch.”
The Pirates had six passed balls heading into Monday’s game against the Chicago Cubs – 23 fewer than the majors’ worst team, the Blue Jays. Their relievers had left 78.1 per cent of runners on base, fifth-best in the majors – and, to a man, they credit Martin’s damage control. And despite Martin’s offensive slowdown, he is two home runs away from tying the club-record of 17 set by catcher Jim Pagliaroni in 1965. Nine of his runs batted in have won games, the most since he had 13 for the 2007 Los Angeles Dodgers.
“The position I play, there’s always some leadership that comes with it,” said Martin, who is in his eighth season. “Even when I was a rookie with the Dodgers, you just understood that you had to take care of the pitching staff; that meant leadership was automatically a responsibility.”
After hitting nine homers in his final month with the Twins, Morneau, a native of New Westminster, B.C., went into Monday looking for his first home run since joining the Pirates on Aug. 31. After 11 years, four all-star appearances and a 2006 American League most valuable player award with the Twins, Morneau said there is an art to being the new guy in the clubhouse.
“You know you have to respect the leadership, the guys who have been here all year,” he said. “But you still have to be yourself, because your personality is one of the reasons a team trades for you down the stretch. The trade brought me some finality. I was ready for it.”