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As the Blue Jays limp on, catcher Russell Martin is eager to return

Toronto Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin walks back to the dugout with an injury on Aug. 11, 2017.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

It was hard to miss the grimace of pain on the face of Toronto Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin as he gingerly made his way toward first base after hitting a grounder in a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Aug. 11.

In typical Martin fashion, he was back behind the plate the next inning, warming up Marcus Stroman. But when he made his practice throw to second base, Martin knew he was in trouble and pulled himself from the game.

"It felt like somebody was stabbing me in the gut," Martin said of the injury, later identified as a left oblique strain.

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Martin has played the game's most demanding position for 12 Major League Baseball seasons now, and has done it better than most. His production this season, however, has dipped in concert with Blue Jays' fortunes.

And nobody, not even Toronto manager John Gibbons, would have blamed Martin if he used the oblique injury to ride out the rest of the year on the sideline and get an early jump on his preparations for 2018.

"He wants to [play] real bad," Gibbons said on Tuesday. "There's only a couple of weeks left; it's important to him. I could have gone either way, you know. But he wants to do it, so …"

So after more than a month convalescing, the 34-year-old Toronto native was reinstated to the Toronto roster on Tuesday afternoon, although he was not in the starting lineup against the Baltimore Orioles at Rogers Centre.

Gibbons said he'd like to see his No. 1 catcher go through another round of batting practice on Wednesday. If that goes well, Martin will likely be behind the plate on Wednesday night for the finale of the Baltimore series.

"My body feels good, batting practice – everything feels back to normal," Martin said on Tuesday. "Just ready to go out there and hopefully I can just get back on it, like riding a bike."

And Martin eyed a questioner with just a bit of disdain when he was asked why push to come back, with just a little over two weeks remaining in the regular-season campaign and the Blue Jays well out of the playoff hunt?

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"As a professional, when you're ready to go, you're ready to go," came Martin's response. "When you're a professional, you go out there, you compete. And if you're healthy, you go play and help your team win. That's what I'm going to try and do."

So far this season, Martin has only played in 81 games and was hitting .223, a full 30 points below his career average. Professional pride probably has something to do with his intense desire to play again this year.

Gibbons does not really care about Martin's year-long struggles at the plate. It is what he does behind the dish as one of the game's top receivers, working with pitchers and controlling the tempo of the game, that the organization values most.

Anything that Martin can provide with the bat at this stage of his career is just gravy.

Teams that Martin has played for have made the postseason in nine of his first 11 seasons, including the past two he has been in a Blue Jays uniform.

"Russ is a difference maker," Gibbons said. "Go back the last few years, every team he's on … normally goes to the playoffs. There's something to that."

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Every player has their own reasons for wanting to finish the year on a high note, even on a team that is just spinning its wheels.

After leading the Blue Jays to a 4-3 victory over the Orioles on Monday, Toronto starter Marco Estrada, a free agent at the season's end, emphasized how his future with the organization could be determined by his few remaining starts.

"It's not how you start, it's how you finish," Estrada said. "If I can show that I'm back to my normal self, what I've done the last few years for these guys, maybe they'll want me back. I'm hoping to come back. I'm trying. I'm trying to show them that I'm still that guy."

"I'd love to have him back," Gibbons said. "I know the organization would, too."

Video: Toronto Wolfpack secures promotion to second-tier competition (The Canadian Press)
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