Martinez carrying Cardinals against Diamondbacks

If you had told someone two years ago that Jose Martinez would be a mainstay in the St. Louis Cardinals‘ lineup, you might have gotten one of two responses: It’ll be a cold day in Hades before that happens, or who is Jose Martinez?

Well, Saturday was the coldest game day in Busch Stadium III history, and Martinez continued to make his name known. Martinez cracked a three-run homer off Arizona Diamondbacks ace Zack Greinke and drove in four runs, leading St. Louis to a series-evening 5-3 decision.

The 6-foot-6 Venezuelan figures to be back in the lineup for Sunday’s rubber match, and it’s a safe bet that Arizona starter Taijuan Walker knows who he is.

In the Cardinals’ first eight games, Martinez is batting .357 with two homers and eight RBIs, solidifying his grip on the No. 5 spot in the order. And it’s not like he’s beating up on fourth and fifth starters. His homers have come against Greinke and New York Mets ace Noah Syndergaard, who could front just about any rotation.

“He continues to show us he’s a legit force as an offensive weapon,” St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said of Martinez. “And he continues to improve as a defensive player.”

Watching Martinez rake against the best pitchers, it’s hard to believe it took him 11 years and more than 3,000 at-bats to finally carve out a big league niche. His career minor league average was .294 and he won the 2015 Pacific Coast League batting title after hitting .384 for Omaha.

But three organizations — the Chicago White Sox, Atlanta and Kansas City — judged that his ability would never enable him to stick in the majors. In fact, his acquisition by St. Louis in 2016 was largely seen as an organizational deal.

However, Martinez changed perceptions one line drive after another, one tough at-bat after another. Injuries gave him a chance to play every day during the second half of 2017 and he finished the year at .309 with an .897 OPS.

He’ll take his cuts Sunday against Walker (0-0, 5.40 ERA), who was no-decisioned in his first start Monday night against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Walker gave up eight hits and three runs in five innings with two walks and four strikeouts in the Diamondbacks’ 8-7, 15-inning win.

Walker has faced the Cardinals twice in his career, going 0-1 with a 4.50 ERA. The loss occurred last July, a 3-2 decision at Busch in which Walker found out firsthand about Martinez’s capabilities. Martinez touched him for a two-run homer and a tiebreaking sacrifice fly.

Luke Weaver (1-0, 1.80) will oppose Walker. Weaver picked up a 5-1 win at the New York Mets on April 1, grinding his way through five innings and 92 pitches. He scattered five hits and allowed a run, walking three and whiffing three.

Weaver’s only career appearance against Arizona resulted in a 4-0 loss last July. He worked five innings and allowed four runs, all coming on J.D. Martinez’s grand slam.