But I wanted to praise the unsung or “semi-sung” Nats. After 95 years, why not spread the love? As Scherzer said, “The coolest thing about October was everybody did something really important.”
Adam Eaton hit just .246 in October but, on close inspection, produced as much or maybe more than might have been expected of former Nats right fielder Bryce Harper. Apparently over-the-hill Ryan Zimmerman said, “Not just yet,” and produced in five crucial spots. Kurt Suzuki, 3 for 30, had a huge, tiebreaking, seventh-inning homer off Justin Verlander in Game 2 of the World Series. Who says a platoon catcher in a deep slump can’t shift a Series with one swing? Asdrúbal Cabrera had six hits in five Series starts at second base; that kept creaky old Kendrick fresh for his heroics as a designated hitter in four wins in Houston.
My sneaky favorite? Who was the Nats player with the highest October on-base-plus-slugging percentage (1.010 in 21 at-bats)? Michael A. Taylor, emergency starter in center field, home run hitter (two) and the pinch hitter who got nicked on the hand by a pitch from relief monster Josh Hader to start the season-saving rally in the National League wild-card game.
Aníbal Sánchez, 2.50 ERA in three starts, had October’s hidden gem: a no-hitter into the eighth inning in Game 1 of the NL Championship Series, nursing a 1-0 lead against the Cardinals in St. Louis. If the Nats had lost, that’s a different series.
Above all, how about some praise for Dave Martinez — as a manager, not just as a fine man. Some of us fired him in May. Yet in the postseason he went 17 for 17 in handling the exit of his starting pitcher, one of a manager’s toughest jobs. He got key outs from rookie Tanner Rainey and used his Big Three starters as relievers in ways that will be discussed for years. Martinez’s calm, cheerful disposition was ideal for both his hugging, dancing team and for facing the pressure of trailing in five elimination games.
Whenever the Nationals do have their home opener — whether that’s this summer or next spring — the joy and relief in Washington will be just part of a world celebration.
But right now, if only for a moment, let’s enjoy memories of a thrilling title run that we had planned to revisit Thursday.
Whenever mulling last season’s World Series run, Eaton jumps to mind. In a superb October, Soto reached base 27 times; Eaton reached 26 times. In the Nats’ dozen playoff wins, Soto scored nine runs and drove in 10; Eaton scored 10 and drove in 10.
From the day Eaton arrived in a trade, he was a poor man’s replacement in case Harper left as a free agent, though he would never duplicate Harper’s big-game presence and love for the October spotlight. But for a month, Eaton was Harper, except with team-centered energy. That may occur only once, but it only needed to happen once.
Some say there’s no such thing as “clutch” and that “battling” in big spots is the stuff of childhood sports novels. But when revered, injured, nearly-written-off vets such as Zimmerman do such deeds in October, they carry emotional weight.
Zimmerman’s three-run homer to deep center was the biggest blow in the Nats’ elimination-game victory in Game 4 of the NL Division Series over the Los Angeles Dodgers and electrified Nationals Park. His homer on a 96-mph fastball from Houston’s Gerrit Cole, the best pitcher in baseball, broke the ice in Game 1, Washington’s first World Series run in 86 years.
But Zimmerman’s ugliest hit may have been his most important: his broken-bat pinch-hit single off Hader in the eighth-inning rally of the wild-card game. Zim says he has the shattered bat, both halves, in his trophy room.
Baseball can’t figure out how to measure managers. Few metrics help at all. But deciding when to pull your starting pitcher is crucial. Look at Martinez’s record in October: In the final inning in which he sent his starter back out, the pitcher completed the inning 14 times. In 13 of those innings, the starters allowed a total of three earned runs. The three times the starter didn’t finish his final inning, he allowed one run or fewer in it. Even the lone “exception” wasn’t a mistake. With a 7-1 lead in Game 4 against St. Louis, Martinez let Corbin allow three runs in the fifth inning to be eligible for the pennant-clinching win.
Not a single “you left him in too long.”
In those five elimination games, Martinez faced many tough decisions. In the wild-card game, he left Strasburg in for a third inning of scoreless relief in the eighth, even though both Doolittle and Hudson were rested and ready. It worked.
In Game 5 against Los Angeles, Martinez trusted Rainey for two outs of the seventh, then got the final out from Corbin, who had allowed six runs in his only relief appearance of the year just three days earlier. It worked. If the season had blown up, we would still be hearing: “Rainey? Corbin? Davey was nuts.”
In Game 7 of the World Series, Martinez “read” that Corbin was sharp; instead of using him for just one or two innings as a bridge to Hudson and Doolittle, he let Corbin get nine outs. The Nats’ two insurance runs in the ninth disguised a key point. If the Nats had led just 4-2, Martinez would have looked smart for keeping his powder dry with both Hudson and Doolittle ready for a scary, hairy ninth.
Martinez had other gutty moments, such as intentionally walking the tying run (Max Muncy) with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 2 against the Dodgers. That (barely) worked, too. Or as Scherzer put it, “Everything he did worked.”
Now we can go back to our worried world, where not one soul is sure who will make it to the other side. That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy a few fond memories Thursday, even though it’s nothing like the day we expected it to be when the Nationals had their Constitution Avenue parade.
Eventually, we will have that bona fide Nats opener and with far more cause to celebrate than just a baseball title. Until then, take a rain check. And stay well.
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