With a walking boot on his left foot, Sean Doolittle stood dejectedly at his locker before the Washington Nationals played the Atlanta Braves on Sunday afternoon. “It’s ‘go time’ now, and I wanted to be back with my guys,” said the all-star closer, who learned from an MRI exam Saturday that he will not be coming off the disabled list within days, as he had hoped. Instead he said he will need weeks more to heal a stress reaction in his foot that, if he kept pitching, would turn into a stress fracture.
“The season is kind of in the balance right now. And I feel helpless.”
Doolittle is not alone. The Nationals have been making themselves feel helpless — and look leaderless — for months.
Trailing the Philadelphia Phillies by six games and the Braves by five in the National League East with 64 games left after Sunday evening’s 6-2 win against Atlanta, the Nats indeed need to “go” now. As Ryan Zimmerman, who has missed 63 games, put it, “We’re going to learn a lot about this season in just the next week or so.”
But who is going to lead that desperate charge?
The Nats should be embarrassed that, when their name comes up within Major League Baseball, for instance at the All-Star Game in Washington last week, one question is often asked: Who are their leaders now that former manager Dusty Baker and veteran outfielder Jayson Werth are gone?
So far the answer has been Max Scherzer and To Be Determined. Even Scherzer got into a public dugout argument with Stephen Strasburg on Friday night that required a private three-way meeting with rookie Manager Dave Martinez so that everyone could “be good” with each other now. On Sunday, the manager even said, “They hugged it out.”
At least that’s better than $380 million worth of right fists slugging it out.
“That stuff happens everywhere — you know it. Seven months together, same guys, everybody’s competitive, tempers flare,” Zimmerman said. “Then it’s over.”
Nonetheless, when players yell and point in the dugout — not in the tunnel or in the clubhouse — they show up the manager, who is then cornered into covering up for everybody — oh, sorry, keeping it in the “circle of trust.”
So far, Martinez has said, “He’s good. . . . They’re good. . . . We’re good.” Good grief.
When the Nats reported to spring training, they knew they would miss the wise, affectionate charisma of Baker and the clubhouse accountability and focus on fundamentals demanded by Werth, who could even get on Bryce Harper’s case when Harper went walkabout and make it stick.
The Nats were aware of what they were losing — and that no rookie manager was likely to replace it. “Nobody was a better manager than Dusty for 21 hours a day,” said one Nats front office official who was not opposed to Baker leaving.
The Nats went for fuller use of analytics during those other three hours (a good idea) and a clubhouse tone of “positivity” that has worked in other places. The Nats assumed their roster was so experienced that it barely needed a manager in the sense of motivation, attention to fundamentals, mental focus over a long season and the ability to monitor itself internally rather than need day care. Martinez could stick to lineups, tactics and morale while learning the rest.
But it hasn’t happened, even though the following Nats — all ages 30 to 37 — are qualified to be coaches, instructors or even managers: Scherzer, Ryan Madson, Daniel Murphy, Brandon Kintzler, Shawn Kelley, Matt Wieters, Mark Reynolds, Doolittle, Zimmerman, Strasburg, Tanner Roark, Jeremy Hellickson and injured Howie Kendrick. Adam Eaton and Matt Adams are a few months from 30. And Harper is in his seventh full season in the majors.
A team that veteran, talented and smart should feel a collective sense of responsibility — by needling, issuing mock fines, having a quiet word in private or, sometimes, a louder word — to play tight, intense professional baseball. The past two years, Baker provided constant short-term goals — none a burden but all a reminder not to drift mentally — to focus on winning each series or never to be swept in a series or to finish a road trip or homestand over .500. The net result: The Nats never had a losing month under Baker. The endless little prods paid off.
Some of that message has disappeared. What excuse does this team have for playing ragged, undisciplined baseball with a 10-16 record in one-run games and many examples of inattention to detail — such as the Braves running wild Friday on Strasburg because they had his pickoff move timed. In that game, trailing by four runs, all three hitters in the ninth made outs on swings with no strikes.
Perhaps it’s coincidence, but the players most expected to assume more leadership have, in one way or another, not filled the bill. Kendrick, out for the season, was a vocal motivator. Others have, inadvertently, made Martinez’s debut harder. Gio Gonzalez complained early about quick hooks. Veteran bullpen members said they were being (over-) used like it was September in May.
Zimmerman took almost all of spring training off — running the idea past Martinez, who agreed. But what choice did he have? Zimmerman’s season has been a bust after a boom in 2017. Murphy was cleared to play by the medical staff for more than a month while Martinez was left hanging, saying the second baseman had to work through the mental barrier of going full speed on his repaired knee. Finally, Martinez had to say: It’s time to play.
This month, Martinez had a meeting with Harper after Harper failed to run out what became a double play grounder. Harper’s postgame response: “After I hit it 108 mph?” So the old rule to give “a hard 90” only applies now if you hit it less than 90 mph?
The Nats still have a shot in 2018 — if their veterans take possession of the team and own it as they should. If they don’t take charge, if 2018 turns out like 2013 and 2015, then nobody has to worry about “blowing up” this team. It will blow itself up with the exodus of as many as 10 pending free agents, including Kelvin Herrera, Adams, Kelley and Hellickson.
Then, with the arrival of Juan Soto, Victor Robles, Carter Kieboom and Erick Fedde, plus the return of starter Joe Ross from injury, the Nats will be assured of fresh blood and energy. With about $70 million dropping off the payroll at the end of the season, the Nats also will be primed for a winter loaded with classy free agents.
We have seen 2013 and 2015, so the Nats’ answer for 2018 doesn’t have to be good. But this season still could be fun, even without Baker and Werth, even with a learning-on-the-job cheerful camp-counselor manager.
But the 15 Nats who should have the experience and résumé to be leaders — of one sort or another — must step up. It’s “go time.” Who leads?