A year ago at this time, all Victor Martinez could do was watch.
The Detroit Tigers rolled through the American League playoffs, but Martinez was still recovering from a knee injury that cost him the entire season. There would be no World Series for him — he could only hope for a healthier 2013 and another shot at postseason play.
"It's a long road I came from," Martinez said recently. "It was a tough year rehabbing, a whole year. I needed two surgeries. It was just tough. For three months I couldn't put any weight on my leg. I spent literally a whole year from January to January rehabbing."
That hard work is finally paying off for Martinez, who helped Detroit to its third straight AL Central title this year. Martinez is one of several standouts in this postseason who missed significant time either this year or in 2012, and these players are as thankful as anyone for the chance to be on the field when the games matter most.
"It's like day and night," Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Carl Crawford said. "Last year I couldn't play because I had surgery and I was home watching the playoffs. But now I'm back on the field playing again and I'm going to the playoffs with a chance of going to the World Series and winning it. So it's been a great change for me, and hopefully I can play well in the playoffs and take us as far as I can."
Crawford had reconstructive elbow surgery last year, shortly before being traded from Boston to Los Angeles. He's also battled hamstring issues this year, but he hit .283 in 116 games for the NL West champion Dodgers. Los Angeles also added reliever Brian Wilson down the stretch — he hadn't pitched in the majors since he was with San Francisco in April 2012, the same month he underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.
In 18 appearances for the Dodgers, Wilson posted a 0.66 ERA.
Teammate Matt Kemp hasn't been so lucky. The Los Angeles outfielder won't be playing the postseason because of swelling in a bone in his sprained left ankle. That's a reminder that to reach the playoffs, a player not only has to help his team win, he also has to stay healthy.
Martinez got off to a frustrating start this year, but he hit .361 after the All-Star break. Elsewhere in the American League, the Red Sox won the AL East despite injuries to outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who returned last week after missing 16 games with a broken right foot, and right-hander Clay Buchholz. Neck and shoulder ailments cost Buchholz three months, interrupting what was a stellar year statistically. He finished the regular season 12-1 with a 1.74 ERA, and his pitch count steadily increased over four starts in September after his return.
Boston's John Lackey, meanwhile, was able to make 29 starts after missing all of 2012 following Tommy John surgery.
"Great dependability — and I think in some ways kind of an inspiration, considering all that he's been through," Red Sox manager John Farrell said. "He's pitched his way back to the level that he was pre-injury."
The postseason officially began Tuesday night when National League wild cards Pittsburgh and Cincinnati played their single-elimination game. The Reds were willing to send Johnny Cueto to the mound, even though he made only 11 starts during the regular season. Cueto missed more than two months with a strained right lat.
The Pirates were hoping for the best from closer Jason Grilli, who didn't look great in September after coming back from a strained forearm.
Pittsburgh and Cincinnati were playing for a spot in the Division Series. The Atlanta Braves have been assured of one ever since they wrapped up the NL East title, and they could breathe a bit easier because star outfielder Jason Heyward, who broke his jaw on Aug. 21, was back on the field during the last week of the regular season.
Heyward had five hits in a game against Philadelphia last week.
"I don't even think about it anymore with him," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "I mean, he's challenged the wall. He made a diving play. He dove into second base head first. He's running around like a young kid, so there's no problem there with the jaw or anything."
Martinez also looks to be at full strength. As Detroit's designated hitter, he doesn't have to play in the field, and he is still pretty slow on the bases. But Martinez's bat is again an asset for the Tigers.
That's gratifying to the 34-year-old veteran, who still recalls those long months of rehab.
"There were some days I'd get up and I didn't want to go do anything. It was really depressing. But my family gave me the extra push," Martinez said. "I have enjoyed every single moment this season. To spray the Champagne the other day, I look back and say this is what we worked for."