After thunderous spring, Martinez appears to have roster spot locked up

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WEST PALM BEACH, Fl. ( -- Monday night at the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, Jose Martinez hit a ball so hard and so far, the fans in the grass beyond the left field wall barely had time for evasive maneuvers.

It was the quintessential no-doubter, a ball so obviously bound for the place beyond the playing field outfielders offer little more than a courtesy step as it soars overhead. It was a perfect symbol of his spring.

He’s batting .400 and slugging .825 in 40 at bats. Monday’s moonshot was his fourth homer.

The common refrain is “spring training stats don’t matter,” but they do for a guy fighting for a roster spot. They certainly do when he’s slugging .825, especially if his competition is hitting his weight.

“Jose has had as good a spring as anybody on our club. It’s hard to deny that,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “I think you’re definitely watching a guy make the most of his opportunity.”

Most players can spend spring experimenting or refining. They can work on a new approach at the plate, or test drive a new pitch. During this period they can ignore the box score, secure in the knowledge they have a job come April.

But for players like Martinez, the numbers are the resume. Those 50 or so at bats, and what he does with them, are his only audition window.

“When you work hard, hard work pays off. I’ve been doing the same thing for a long time and the Cardinals gave me a lot of opportunities,” Martinez said. “So I have to prove it. I have to work every day harder and harder and just try to be out there to help the team win. Whatever it is, whatever situation.”

Martinez made his MLB debut at age 28 after spending 10 seasons in the minors. He bounced around four organizations before landing in St. Louis, and last season he became the 18,882nd player to reach the big leagues.

Over 18 plate appearances as a September call-up, Martinez hit .438. His OPS was a clean 1.000. He enhanced his stock with a lineout to deep center off Aroldis Chapman in their first meeting and a seven-pitch at bat in their next encounter, one in which he fouled off 100 mph fastballs multiple times to prolong the conflict. Given the Cardinals hit .088 as a team against Chapman over his career, a batter demonstrating anything resembling a successful approach against the lefty closer stood out.

It put Martinez on the team’s radar in a way few other things could.

“That at bat, that was incredible for me. The guy is throwing so hard, I’m saying, ‘just try to hit the ball,’” he said of his first matchup with the Cubs’ closer. “If it’s Chapman or whoever, I’m just going to give everything I have.”

But that was the sum total of Martinez’s major league resume. Seven hits and two walks over 12 games and a pair of credible at-bats against the game’s most dominant reliever.

It was enough to earn him some chances in the spring, enough to keep the eyes on him so long as he kept producing. The Cardinals had him play left. When he kept hitting and Matt Carpenter was shut down at first base, they moved Martinez there. His lanky, 6’6 frame looked gawky at times, but he’s flashed instincts for the infield and has worked relentlessly on his defense this spring.

“I feel comfortable playing left, comfortable playing right and first base now. So that’s going to get me more opportunity. It’s going to give me more space to play and I’m really happy about it,” he said. “I just have to keep coming to the field and work more and more. To shag some balls and take more ground balls every day and you never know. Stuff is going to happen out there, you’re going to make errors, you’re going to learn from it and you have to be ready for work the next day.”

In just over 10 days, Martinez will be readying for work in the major leagues. The Cardinals are thrilled with his offense (second highest OPS among qualified spring hitters), and have seen enough capable defense to be confident in deploying him.

However they structure the Opening Day roster- 12 pitchers or 11, with Tommy Pham included or sent to Memphis- it’s growing impossible to imagine Martinez being excluded. He’s latched onto his opportunity and hung on like a pit bull. He’s given meaning to the meaningless numbers.

All he has to do now is what he’s always done.

“Things can turn off really quick in this game. You never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “When you have [18] at bats in the major leagues, I don’t call that a success. I think you have to do more than that. You have to keep proving what you can do in this game. It’s a long way to go. I’m just trying to take advantage of the opportunities they’ve given me and other than that, try to have fun.”

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