By Ian Browne
BOSTON — After watching his teammates take a walk around the park to tie Friday night’s game against the Royals, J.D. Martinez had just one request of himself as he got ready to see the first pitch from righty Scott Barlow with two outs in the bottom of the eighth.
“Don’t swing, if I’m being honest,” said Martinez. “That was clearly what I told myself. He didn’t throw [Xander Bogaerts] a strike. He didn’t throw [Alex Verdugo] a strike. I was going up there like, ‘You’re not swinging. Just watch a pitch.’”
Fortunately, instincts took over, giving Martinez one of his most rewarding moments of a frustrating last three months.
Boston’s veteran DH ripped away at the first pitch from Barlow and laced a go-ahead RBI single to lead the Red Sox to a hard-fought, 2-1 victory over the Royals at Fenway Park.
Martinez’s hit was the third and final one of the night for Boston. But it proved to be enough, thanks to an unusually patient approach that led to eight walks, including four in that game-turning eighth.
“A walk is as good as a hit. That’s what they used to tell us in Little League,” said Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “We did a good job today. We won a lot of counts that mattered. That’s the fun part of it. When you do that as an offense, you feel like something good is going to happen. Tonight, it did.”
With the bases loaded and one out, it was surprising to see Bogaerts get out of his element and strike out swinging on five pitches despite Barlow not throwing a single strike during the at-bat.
Verdugo was determined not to let that happen to him, and he tied the game by walking on four pitches.
“Very [determined],” Verdugo said. “I played with Barlow, we’ve played against each other for a while now too. He’s one of those guys, he spins it. He’s got a good one. The slider, the curveball, he’s got a good feel for it and knows what he wants to do. After seeing the Bogey at-bat, he threw some good pitches, it’s hard to lay off.
“You look at where they are and you’re like, ‘How do you swing at that but when you’re in the box, it’s deceptive and he’s got some good stuff.’ For me, I knew I just had to be disciplined, see one out over [the plate]. I found myself in a good count and he was nibbling and I just didn’t bite.”
What made Martinez change his mind and swing away on the first pitch?
“He just kind of left it over the middle and I was like, ‘All right, we’re swinging.’ It’s just instincts, reaction and doing it a lot,” Martinez said.
For Martinez, the RBI was just his 53rd of the season and his fifth since Aug. 28.
“It’s good to see the big guy get a hit there,” said Cora.
It has been strange to see Martinez — an RBI machine for most of his career — struggle so much to drive in runs this season. This made Friday night’s hit one to appreciate for his teammates.
“Yeah, it was huge,” said Verdugo. “Obviously with the walk, we tied the game. That was the inning we wanted to get ahead and he said he was taking the first pitch but he saw it really good and put a really good swing on the ball and came through for us. We’re all very fortunate and happy to have him here. And for him to come through, I know it felt good.”
There’s a chance Martinez’s days are numbered in Boston, as he is a free agent at the end of the season. Though he has expressed his love for playing with the Red Sox numerous times, the club might go in a different direction given the down season by the 35-year-old Martinez.
For now, the fans roared with approval when he came through on Friday.
“Yeah, the fans are great here,” Martinez said. “They’ve always been. They let you know if you’re doing well. They let you know when you’re doing bad. That’s something I’ve always respected. There’s no place like Fenway.”