PHOENIX — J.D. Martinez instantly knew the feeling. One swing, or one movement, served as the trigger. Martinez’s face told the story even before he left the cage during batting practice and walked over to Los Angeles Dodgers’ training staff and pointed to the area. Word was relayed to manager Dave Roberts.
Martinez has been hampered off and on by a mysterious lower-body issue for weeks. First, he felt it warming up before a day game series finale on July 23 in Texas, returning two days later. It came up again exactly a week later, and Martinez wouldn’t return until Saturday. The Dodgers have called it left groin/hamstring tightness.
It’s more complicated than that, which suddenly makes managing the Dodgers’ productive designated hitter all the more difficult.
“Nobody knows,” Martinez said of the issue last week. “Including myself.”
Martinez boarded a plane back to Los Angeles on Tuesday night and will go for another MRI to again try to figure out a solution. The plan, Roberts said Tuesday night, is for Martinez to avoid the injured list and potentially receive an injection that could help him get through the remainder of the season without another recurrence of the discomfort.
That, at least, is the hope.
Urías P https://t.co/UBMEXXIZII
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) August 9, 2023
Past imaging and testing haven’t clarified what has been a compounding phenomenon. He will feel the area grab at him as if it were a sudden cramp. Then, within minutes, he will feel like he is unable to walk. A few hours later, he will head home feeling completely fine. It’s an issue, Roberts said, that has lingered off and on since spring training.
The two previously known instances came during day games, leading Martinez to hypothesize that it was a byproduct of recovery times after a night game with a short turnaround. Martinez sat Monday when the Dodgers capped their wraparound series in San Diego with a 1:10 p.m. PT start time as a precaution to avoid another flare-up. They’d get one 24 hours later at Chase Field anyway.
The Dodgers appear compelled to wait this out. Martinez missing significant time would threaten the harmonious balance they’ve seemed to find in their matchup-proof, post-trade-deadline lineup. The 35-year-old has experienced a revitalization this summer after being reunited with hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc and former Boston Red Sox teammate Mookie Betts, slugging 25 home runs (he had 16 in 2022) and an .870 OPS that would be his highest since 2019.
The Dodgers have highly touted internal options. Michael Busch has a 1.029 OPS in 378 Triple-A plate appearances this season, but he has yet to get a real run of playing time during his two stints with the big-league club. Miguel Vargas opened the season as the Dodgers’ everyday second baseman, struggled and was sent down at the All-Star break, and he’s all but been replaced with the acquisitions of Kiké Hernández and Amed Rosario at the trade deadline. But he’s hit .304/.413/.533 in the 109 plate appearances since getting sent down.
Neither is the proven, reliable, middle-of-the-order producer like Martinez is, though. Which makes eradicating whatever this issue is all the more important.
The stumble dampened what is usually a hopeful trip down to Arizona. The Dodgers won a tight one Tuesday, 5-4, and are still just one woeful eighth inning shy of being perfect since the trade deadline came and went a week ago. They’re a season-best 20 games above .500 and have their biggest lead over the division (five games) this year. Julio Urías tossed six scoreless innings (giving him 14 straight) and has allowed just three runs in the 17 innings since the worst start of his career on July 19 in Baltimore.
“That was Julio right there,” Freddie Freeman said. “That was fun to watch. He just looked so much more free. The ball was coming out so effortlessly. That’s a really good sign for the Dodgers there.”
And, given the proximity between Chase Field and the Dodgers’ spring complex at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, the club’s trips here are usually an opportunity for rehabbing players to get in-person looks with the big-league staff.
The Dodgers already know they’re getting Clayton Kershaw back Thursday. Walker Buehler, who threw a spirited bullpen session Friday at Titleist Performance Institute in Oceanside, Calif., will face hitters Wednesday for the first time since undergoing his second Tommy John surgery.
Shelby Miller might be able to provide more immediate reinforcement, too. He started a rehab assignment Saturday at the Arizona Complex League and will throw twice more before hopefully joining Triple-A Oklahoma City to complete what should be a rather quick ramp-up, one befitting how minor Miller originally felt his neck issue would be after complaining of discomfort in mid-June. The long flight from Philadelphia while on bereavement leave and the ensuing drive from Phoenix to Los Angeles had done him in, Miller had posited. But a resulting MRI revealed a herniated disk in Miller’s neck, one that pressed on a nerve and was causing numbness down Miller’s left side.
“I was kind of shocked with the results and how severe it was,” Miller said. “But I guess just time off and doing exercises and lengthening the spine and stuff just kind of helped it. And I’ve been feeling a lot better.”
The Dodgers bullpen (which entered Tuesday tied for 18th with a 4.14 ERA and allowed four more runs in the win) would certainly welcome Miller back. Though the underlying numbers may not have been as strong as the 2.40 ERA Miller had in the 30 innings before his injury, he is the closest of Los Angeles’ crop of injured relievers to making a return.
Right around now is when Blake Treinen was hoping to insert his name into the fray, however optimistic that was after undergoing offseason surgery to repair his labrum and rotator cuff. That return isn’t coming soon, but progress is progress.
He was the heart of the Dodgers bullpen but has thrown all of six innings over the last two years due to shoulder trouble. The 35-year-old has been throwing bullpen sessions but hasn’t progressed to facing hitters. Regaining his old velocity has been a challenge.
“Somewhat harder to come by right now than I’d like to admit,” Treinen said. “I know time’s going to be my best friend, and I’d like to have that time speed up so I can contribute in some way, shape or form.
“I’m confident I’ll be back. I just don’t know when that time is. … I’ve got to start seeing some climbs in velo, and then they can make the decision if I’m good enough to help them.”
The Dodgers have invested plenty in the former All-Star, including guaranteeing Treinen $8 million this season (which had been a club option prior to the new extension he signed last year). They also baked in some of the risk; Treinen’s deal includes a conditional option for next season that is valued between $1 million and $7 million depending on how much Treinen is able to contribute this year.
“I don’t want to mess up any type of team mojo,” Treinen said. “I know I’m still part of this team. I’d love to contribute. I know I’m a valuable asset. But they’ve got to feel comfortable with where my stuff’s at.”
Hope will have to have some currency for him to be a factor with a club that very much is playing its way back into October.
(Photo of James Outman scoring in the ninth inning Tuesday: Joe Camporeale / USA Today)