Still time to catch up

What happened to Russell Martin?

With 47 games left in the regular season, Martin has three home runs, only two more than Chad Billingsley.

A two-time All-Star, he is hitting a modest .264.

A player who averaged 78 runs batted in over the last two seasons, he is on pace to drive in 46.

Martin admits that numbers like that would have caused him to panic in the past. Not any more.

Why?

"Because I'm good," he says.

The once uber-intense catcher is now one of the more relaxed players in the clubhouse. The once-precocious youngster is now a 26-year-old leader with perspective.

"I don't think I've been as frustrated," Martin says. "It's a long season. The more you play, the more you realize that."

Martin has found a way to put a positive spin on his offensive troubles.

"Hopefully, I can finish strong this year instead of tailing off like I have in years past," he says, laughing.

Martin might be on to something.

He has hit .301 over his last 33 games and Manager Joe Torre batted him second in the three-game series in San Francisco that concluded Wednesday.

Second-half production used to be a touchy subject for the once overly sensitive Martin.

In 2007, he hit .306 before the All-Star break and .275 after. He hit .294 in the "first half" last year and .260 in the second. The reason was easy: fatigue.

Martin led the majors in games caught both seasons. Explaining why he was batting .258 at the midseason intermission this year isn't as simple.

"I was just battling myself," Martin says. "Mechanically, I wasn't where I wanted to be."

Torre says Martin's problems were psychological and blames the burden of expectation. Martin hit 32 home runs over the last two seasons, including 19 in 2007.

Torre says when he managed in New York, he saw Alfonso Soriano slump as he tried to become the 40-40 player he was expected to be, and Derek Jeter become a less effective hitter when he tried to hit 20 home runs.

"I think when you get in this mode of needing to do this, it becomes difficult to do it," Torre says.

Martin struck out 21 times in his first 20 games and finished April with a .205 average. He didn't hit his first home run until the Dodgers' 69th game, on June 20.

"He was struggling to make good, solid contact, honestly," hitting coach Don Mattingly says. "He struck out a lot, it seemed like. He wasn't seeing the ball well. Then I think it kind of feeds itself. He hasn't hit one so he tries to hit one. It causes a vicious cycle of chasing the tail."

But the scuttlebutt among scouts is that there is more to it than that.

One American League scout, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because his team doesn't allow him to talk about players on other clubs, says Martin doesn't appear to be as strong as he used to be. A National League scout says he has noticed a decline in Martin's bat speed.

"There are 2-0 pitches, 3-1 pitches that he's missing," the NL scout says. "In the past, he could sit there and punish them. He doesn't swing with the same intensity that he used to."

In this day and age, Martin says he understands that there might be suspicions that he once was doing something illegal and now has stopped -- namely steroids.

"I hope people don't think that," Martin says. "It would be unjust."

Martin points out that when he broke into the majors in 2006, baseball was already testing for performance-enhancing drugs. "I came in when we had the testing," he says. "It'd be kind of hard to get away with that."

For the record, Martin says he never took any banned substances.

Mattingly laments that the subject has to be part of the conversation, but he says it could be worse.

"He's really fortunate he's on the West Coast," Mattingly says. "If he's on the East Coast, he would have been buried early in the year."

Also helping Martin is the Dodgers' dominance of the NL West, something Torre says his catcher has contributed to with his performance behind the plate. Martin has run pitchers' meetings at the start of series. He has paid greater attention to calling games.

In spring training, Martin changed his throwing technique -- upon receiving the ball, he brings the ball directly back to the side of his right ear so that he could release it quicker -- resulting in him nailing 23% of potential base-stealers compared to 19.5% last year. He refines his technique by performing a drill with bullpen catcher Mike Borzello before almost every game.

"I know people say his offense isn't where it's supposed to be, but his impact on the defensive side has been larger than what it would be on the offensive side even if he had his best year," says 40-year-old backup catcher Brad Ausmus, who was signed in part to mentor Martin.

Ausmus calls Martin the most athletic catcher he has ever seen and, like Torre and Mattingly, sees him as a potential .300 hitter. He says that his clubhouse wrestling matches with Martin have him convinced that Martin -- 5 feet 10, 210 pounds -- hasn't lost his strength.

Torre and Mattingly say the key for Martin is for him to remain focused on hitting line drives. "With the type of hitter he is, home runs should come by mistake," Torre says. "In other words, he hits a line drive, it stays in the air, it's a home run."

Mattingly says Martin never had the kind of power possessed by a player such as Matt Kemp, the kind of power that lets a player hit a home run without hitting in on the screws.

"Guys like Russell have to crush it," Mattingly says. "They have to catch it good to hit it out. I think he's going to be most effective when he's in that .300 area. I told him that the other day, 'I really believe you should be concentrating on squaring balls up and hitting them all over the ballpark. You'd hit more home runs than you've ever hit just by doing that.' "

Mattingly says he also told Martin: "It's not how you start the year what people are going to remember. It's going to be how you finish the year."

Ausmus says he isn't convinced that Martin won't end the season with decent power numbers. "It wouldn't surprise me if he got hot and hit some home runs in the last month and a half of the season," he says.

Martin expresses a similar sentiment. "The season's not over," he says. "I haven't hit .250 yet."

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dylan.hernandez@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Declining numbers

A look at Russell Martin's career offensive stats, which have fallen off this season:

*--* Year G R HR RBI BB SO SB AVG. OB% SLG% 2006 121 65 10 65 45 57 10 282 355 436 2007 151 87 19 87 67 89 21 293 374 469 2008 155 87 13 69 90 83 18 280 385 396 2009 104 47 3 33 53 64 9 264 368 323 *--*

Source: baseball-reference.com

DODGERS TONIGHT

AT ARIZONA

When: 6:30 PDT.

Where: Chase Field.

On the air: TV: Ch. 9. Radio: 790, 930.

Probable pitchers: Clayton Kershaw vs. Dan Haren; Saturday, 5 p.m. PDT -- Hiroki Kuroda (5-5, 4.21) vs. Doug Davis (7-10, 3.62); Sunday, 1 p.m. PDT -- Randy Wolf (6-6, 3.43) vs. Yusmeiro Petit (2-6, 5.87).

Update: Kershaw rebounded from his shortest start of the season with one of his best, tossing seven shutout innings against Atlanta. He is 5-1 with a 1.06 earned-run average in his last 11 starts. Haren increased his ERA from 1.96 to 2.57 in his last four starts.

-- Dylan Hernandez

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