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New York to new life: How a humbling sweep set the Nationals straight

Nationals Manager Dave Martinez was ejected from a May 23 game against the Mets with his team on its way to being swept. It became the season's turning point. (Julio Cortez/AP)

Dave Martinez’s eyes were red, and his face was sticky with grape juice cocktail, but the Washington Nationals manager kept thinking about the date that has been on his mind for months.

“I said it on May 24 …” Martinez started, and that was enough. He could have stopped right there. He was standing next to two folding tables, looking as if they were fetched from the basement of a fraternity house, covered in champagne and beer cans and a sea of off-white foam. This was the Nationals’ clubhouse last Tuesday night. This was the celebration for making the National League wild-card game, and this was their manager remembering how it came so close to not happening.

“I thought we hit the bottom then,” Martinez continued, champagne spraying over his head, and he was almost right. The Nationals were 19-31 after they were swept in a four-game series by the New York Mets at Citi Field. They were cooked. Then they climbed back, slowly at first, before becoming the fourth team in history to go from 12 games below .500 to the playoffs.

“And here we are,” Martinez finished, and now he was choked up, having drawn a clear line between the season’s darkest days and the result of not slipping into them. This is what happened then and how it led to what will happen next, a date with the Milwaukee Brewers at Nationals Park on Tuesday, and a chance to turn their comeback into something more.

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‘Are those the standings?’

Juan Soto and Victor Robles had to be up way earlier than usual. It was May 21, the Tuesday of the Mets series, the morning after a 5-3 loss, and they were expected at the MLB Network studios in Secaucus, N.J.

They rode in an SUV with two team public relations staffers. They wore normal clothes — Soto in a button down, Robles in a tucked-in golf shirt — and marveled at the sets upon arriving. While Robles waited for his turn, off to the side with a producer, he noticed a list of teams on the back wall of the network’s Studio 41. He scanned the circles to find the Nationals’ logo. Then he noticed something.

“Are those the standings?” Robles asked in Spanish.

“Yeah,” the producer answered. “Someone comes in every day to change them, so they are up to date.”

Robles shook his head. The Nationals were behind the Philadelphia Phillies, the Atlanta Braves and the Mets. They were 19-28. Players aren’t supposed to look at the standings during the season, especially not in May. But here was a reminder Robles didn’t expect. The young outfielder was a bit quieter until the cameras came to him.

‘Losers break things’

The Nationals lost again that night, 6-5, before Soto and Robles found themselves at the center of the latest meltdown.

Washington led the Mets 1-0 heading into the eighth inning Wednesday. Kyle Barraclough, who was later designated for assignment, recorded two outs but allowed two base runners. That’s all teams needed against the Nationals’ bullpen early this season. The bullpen’s ERA ballooned to a league-worst 6.89 during that week. Martinez soon went to his closer, Sean Doolittle, for four outs. Doolittle hit a batter with a pitch to load the bases. Then he threw a low-and-in fastball that Juan Lagares ripped into the left-center gap.

Soto and Robles chased after it. Both pulled up a few feet from where it landed, neither dove, and the double rattled around the wall while the go-ahead runs scored. Citi Field was delirious. Doolittle, cap tipped up off his head, couldn’t wipe a distant stare off his face. He allowed six runs to score without retiring a batter. There were rumblings the next morning, among people in the organization, that either Soto or Robles had to go all out to make the play. It was the only time this season that visible fractures, however small, began to form in the clubhouse.

MLB Network didn’t play on the TVs while Washington prepped for the series finale. If it had, or if the Nationals checked social media, the outlook wasn’t pretty: Multiple media outlets had Martinez as good as fired. Articles suggested the club trade Anthony Rendon, a pending free agent, and maybe even Max Scherzer or Doolittle while their value was still high.

“People were just completely jumping ship on us,” Doolittle said in September. “I was on the Cubs. I was definitely on the Cubs; I might have been on the Twins for a minute. But I’m glad I came back here. This has been a lot of fun.”

The bullpen back then was an entirely failing operation. That was a big part of why pitching coach Derek Lilliquist was fired May 2. Only Doolittle, Wander Suero and Tanner Rainey are still part of the bullpen Washington is taking into the postseason. The Nationals struggled to maintain even the largest leads, and Martinez could only really trust Doolittle. The problem was compounded because every bullpen bet made by General Manager Mike Rizzo in the offseason — Trevor Rosenthal, Tony Sipp, Barraclough — never panned out. A few relievers said they felt the manager leaned heavily on Doolittle and those he thought had potential, such as Barraclough and Suero, because the season, and maybe his job, were in jeopardy.

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But they also thought the approach created problems: The “untrustworthy” arms struggled to find a rhythm with few opportunities to earn high-leverage spots. The others were overused because relievers rarely tap out. Bullpens valorize a willingness to take the ball. One veteran recalled that older relievers occasionally went to Martinez’s office and told him when younger guys were too tired to pitch. It reached a point that whenever the relievers were together — in the bullpen, in the dugout, out to eat — and heard anything that sounded like a phone ringing, they jokingly urged Suero to get loose.

One reliever believes this usage was unsustainable and that, if the complete collapse hadn’t happened in New York, it would have against another team. Another pitcher thought this team, until then, felt like last year’s middling squad. He thought this series changed that, and added that “mediocrity was tolerated; embarrassment wasn’t.” Yet no one blew up.

“Losers throw tables; losers break things,” right fielder Adam Eaton said. “We weren’t losers. We never got that desperate.”

They did, however, all gather before the series finale Thursday. A few people in the clubhouse recalled that everyone had a chance to say what they thought was wrong. Martinez first did this two weeks earlier, while the Nationals were swept in Milwaukee, but the manager stays away from mandated meetings. He learned in the twilight of his career, while playing for Bobby Cox on the Atlanta Braves, that the clubhouse belongs to the veterans.

And that’s who decided it was time to hash it out before the last game in New York. Martinez sat back and watched. The rest of the staff was in the room, too. A few players thought it was a formality, necessary given the circumstances, a chance for guys to speak and move on. Scherzer, the team’s ace and one of its leaders, later described it as “mostly trivial.” But others, including some members of the bullpen, felt it was important to put everything on the table. Multiple relievers, according to those in the room, took responsibility for not pulling their weight.

“That can divide teams, when the starters are doing their job and the hitters are scratching runs across, and giving you leads late in games and you can't hold them,” Doolittle said. “Those are the things that start to erode team chemistry.”

Martinez only spoke after everyone had a chance, looking around the quieted room, locking eyes with whoever would stare back.

“Listen to yourselves; you’re all saying the same stuff,” Martinez recalled telling his players. “You still trust each other.”

But even if the air was cleared, even if the Nationals all knew what needed to change, they went out and lost again.

‘How could I forget it?’

The last and lasting images of the disaster in New York: Martinez kicking dirt onto home plate. Martinez spiking his hat into the batter’s box. Martinez stomping around in a tirade that got him ejected in the eighth inning and looked to some like it may have been his last act in a Nationals uniform.

The fire seemed to ignite the Nationals for a moment. They even surged ahead. Then Suero surrendered a three-run homer to Carlos Gómez and the bullpen had blown it again.

Clubhouses are often quiet after losses. But this was different. The Nationals were in free fall, Martinez was asked who was to blame, and he instead preached this season could be saved. He repeated, in a hoarse voice, his team would go 1-0 tomorrow. The mind-set, at the time, seemed more problematic than prophetic.

“I can remember the moment leaving New York. How could I forget it?” Scherzer said. “It was a really low moment. It was by far the lowest moment of the season.”

“It was like: ‘That was so bad. Let’s get the [expletive] out of here; let’s go home,’ ” Doolittle remembered. “ ‘We need to regroup, but let’s get out of here — fast.’ ”

So they did. The players stuffed their bags quickly. A red clock on the wall ticked. They strode out of the clubhouse, hooked a left, passed through double doors and found their way onto a waiting coach. The bus ferried them west, out of Queens, through Manhattan traffic and finally to Penn Station, where they boarded a chartered Amtrak train. They sank into their seats. Someone passed out pizza as they shoved off.

By the time they arrived in Washington, a few hours later, there was at least one shared feeling in the near-silent cars: Everyone was relieved to be home.

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‘I believed it’

Just the other day, after the beer-soaked celebration, amid an eight-game winning streak to finish the regular season, Martinez reached deep into a desk drawer inside his office at Nationals Park.

He was looking for an old lineup card. He keeps every single one, stacked in order, just in case he ever wants to reminisce about a certain game. This was one of those times. A few of his coaches sat in the couches and stadium seats across the room. He wanted everyone to realize how far this team had come. He also wanted a few laughs.

Martinez looked down at the sheet and began reading aloud: “Leading off, Victor Robles … batting second, Wilmer Difo … batting third, Adam Eaton … fourth, Kurt Suzuki … fifth, Brian Dozier.”

That was the order for a May 5 game in Philadelphia, a few weeks before Washington hit bottom, and a few months later it was buried by their success. But that lineup doubled as evidence of what spurred such a sharp turnaround. The Nationals, first and foremost, were healthy by the start of June. Trea Turner, Rendon and Soto finally played at the same time. Aníbal Sánchez found a rhythm as the fourth starter, complementing a stacked rotation. The bullpen became passable. The Nationals picked on the Miami Marlins the weekend after New York, winning three of four, then went on the best 80-game stretch in club history.

Before that series with the Marlins, when the season was fading, Rizzo stopped in to see Martinez. They didn’t talk about his job status. Neither felt the need. Yet Martinez was mindful of expectations that were not being met. He sat at his desk, just a few feet from where he recited that lineup card in late September, and promised Rizzo that the Nationals, despite everything, still had a pulse.

“I told him we would be okay,” Martinez recalled. “I gave him my God’s honest word, and I believed it.”

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