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09/08/11 10:00 AM ET

V-Mart proving to be steal of free agency

CLEVELAND -- Victor Martinez has had a huge impact in the Detroit Tigers' clubhouse this season. Between his infectious smile, his unceasing love for the game and the bonds he's formed with the players, he has been a pivotal part of an obviously amiable atmosphere.

"He's a joy," catcher Alex Avila said. "I'm sure he reminds a lot of guys of themselves when they were younger."

Much younger.

Like, 7 years old.

Yes, we're speaking here of Victor Jose Martinez, the tireless tyke who is rarely not by his famous father's side. All summer, Little Vic has been along for the ride on the road, in the locker room, even on the field, with his dad throwing him batting practice, hitting him fly balls and teaching him the ins and outs of the game that has made him a star.

"I lost my father [to a heart attack] when I was 6 years old," the elder Victor said. "So any time that I can spend with my son, I enjoy. He loves to be around this game. He loves to be at the ballpark. It means a lot to me to pass that on."

The Tigers players love the little guy.

But come to think of it, they're pretty enamored with his dad, too.

Few free-agent moves made last winter have meant as much to a contender as the Tigers' signing of Martinez to a four-year, $50 million contract.

Martinez will turn 33 this winter, and knee issues have prevented him from catching more than three games since the All-Star break, so it's still a decision that will best be judged in the long-term. But in the immediate, you can safely single out Martinez, whose go-ahead grand slam here Wednesday afternoon off lefty Tony Sipp essentially KO'd the Indians in the division race, as a major reason why the Tigers are sitting pretty atop the American League Central.

Jim Leyland certainly has.

"He's been a huge guy for us," Leyland said. "He's exactly what I talk about a lot of times when it comes to leadership. There have been a lot of guys over the years who have tried to appoint themselves leaders, and they can't do it. That's always been my belief. You can't appoint a leader; it just happens. And he's one of those guys that it just happens with. He's one of those personalities. He's very respectful of the game and his teammates, he keeps everybody upbeat.

"Plus, he looks pretty good in the batter's box."

Especially here in a pennant push.

A week ago, the Tigers held a 5 1/2-game lead on both the White Sox and the Indians. A nice lead, but hardly an insurmountable one, as the 2009 Tigers, who had a 6 1/2-game lead after Labor Day and let it slip away, demonstrated.

In case there were any concern this Tigers club was capable of such a collapse, a pair of three-game sweeps of the White Sox and Tribe ought to be convincing evidence to the contrary. And Martinez was instrumental in the scorched-earth campaign, batting .429 (9-for-21) with two homers and three doubles over the last five games. He drove in 10 runs in the three games against his former club in Cleveland, helping to place the Tigers on the cusp of their first division title since 1987.

"It's all about winning," Martinez said. "It's all about winning."

Martinez didn't take long to win over his teammates in Detroit, many of whom knew him only as a division rival. The presence and personality he projects have made him beloved in the locker room. The advice he's bestowed upon the young Avila, who has had a breakout year, and closer Jose Valverde, who heeded Martinez's Spring Training message about trusting his two-seamer and has used it to seal 42 saves in 42 opportunities, has been an asset. And most importantly, his bat in the No. 5 spot has provided protection for Miguel Cabrera, who has had another monster season.

That latter part is illustrated in Cabrera's walk rate, which has dropped slightly with men in scoring position, from 23.3 percent last year to 21.1 this year. Last year, Cabrera was, by far, the AL leader in intentional walks, with 32. This year, that number has dropped to 17.

An elite talent like Cabrera is always going to be pitched around to some degree, but Martinez, whose .326 average ranks fourth in the league and whose .397 average with runners in scoring position is second only to Cabrera (.401) among those with at least 100 such at-bats, has at least made the opposition think twice.

"[Martinez] has allowed Miguel to hit in RBI situations," hitting coach Lloyd McClendon said. "Nobody can protect Miguel, but opposing managers are reluctant to walk him now in certain situations. He has the opportunity to hit in RBI situations, whereas in the past he didn't have that opportunity."

With the All-Star Avila behind the plate and Cabrera locked in at first, Martinez has found his opportunities in the field to be few and far between, particularly given his knee condition. He hasn't caught a game since Aug. 4.

But DH duties have suited Martinez just fine. After a slow start, Martinez leaned on former teammates Travis Hafner and David Ortiz for their input on adjusting to the role.

"They just said to try to keep my body warm for the next at-bat," Martinez said. "Early in the season, I was taking too many swings between at-bats, and I think that was wearing me out a little bit. They both told me to make sure to keep my body warm, be moving around and not just be sitting there waiting for the next at-bat. Now, I hop on the bike, I pedal for five minutes just to get a little sweat going, and then I get off and take a couple swings."

The Tigers targeted Martinez because they knew the success his swings can bring from both sides of the plate.

What they didn't necessarily count on was his being such a valuable addition off the field.

"He's not a real, real outspoken type of guy, by any means," Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski said. "But I think he ties everybody together, no matter who they are, from any nationality. People respect him a great deal, because he's a winner and he's a leader."

He's also a father. And a great one, at that.

Before Wednesday's game, Big Vic and Little Vic lounged together on the couch in the visitors' clubhouse at Progressive Field, watching a movie on an iPad and laughing out loud. It was one of many joyful moments shared between father and son this season. And with a huge division advantage in hand, more joy is on the horizon.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.