NEW YORK — Some of the best New York Yankees clubs were simply known as “Derek Jeter’s team,” just as the Boston Red Sox still belong, in some spiritual sense, to Big Papi, David Ortiz. Other clubs have been identified by a big-ego or big-brain manager, like Tony La Russa’s St. Louis Cardinals.
But as they reach the all-star break 18 games over .500 (the same level over .500 as “The Mighty Cubs”), they are becoming a closely knit club of several interlocking leaders who take their cue from Manager Dusty Baker. The skipper gives more prominent roles to those who rise to a challenge and finds spots to showcase anyone who has a natural presence or swagger.
“Dusty has been meticulous in learning his guys. It’s been organic,” veteran Jayson Werth said. “As he learns us, he puts people in roles where they can succeed but also lead.”
Always a leader himself, Baker looks for — and so far has found — many on his squad deserving of battlefield promotion or heightened respect. On Sunday, for instance, Baker decided that holding off the injured Mets through the late innings might be a defining midseason kick in the gut to the NL champs. They’re down. Stomp ’em. So who’s got big feet for the job? Burning the book, Baker bypassed six plausible relievers at his disposal to call instead for starter Tanner Roark to get seven crucial outs. Why?
“Tanner is a horse,” Baker said.
“You can’t show anything out there — be stone-faced,” Roark said. “Once the other dugout sees that it looks like you’re getting in your own head, they smell blood in the water, and they want to attack.”
Without changing expression, Roark got them all — seven up, seven down.
If this sounds familiar, perhaps it is because in the seventh inning Saturday, Baker asked Max Scherzer whether he had enough left in the tank to get the last out of the inning. “Yes,” said Scherzer, who has one blue eye and one brown eye. “Which eye do I look in?” Baker asked, to find out whether Scherzer was telling the truth. “The [bleeping] brown eye,” Scherzer shot back. “That’s my pitching eye.”
Everybody snorted or laughed. Scherzer stayed in the game and go the out.
Week by week, month by month, Baker is figuring out who wants the ball in the late innings. He knew Jonathan Papelbon, who got Sunday’s save, lived for those moments. But when Pap was hurt, only Shawn Kelley looked like he had the stomach to close, so he did.
Who wants to hit in the middle of the lineup? Baker knew that MVP Bryce Harper did. But now it’s clear that Daniel Murphy (.348 batting average), who hit a two-run homer Sunday, and Wilson Ramos (.330), who had the game-winning RBI blast off the 380-feet sign in right field, do, too. In fact, as Harper has semi-slumped and mini-sulked at times, Baker had meetings with both Murphy and Harper to tell them they would be flipped, with Murphy now in the No. 3 hole associated with Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Ted Williams. “That was the hard one,” Baker said.
Who wants the tough defensive play to come his way with the game on the line? Danny Espinosa, back at his beloved shortstop position. So Baker stuck with him, sent hot prospect Trea Turner to Class AAA and made it clear Espinosa was The Shortstop, not a temporary shortstop. Espinosa’s bat suddenly burst into flames; he has 18 homers and in a recent four-game series had 15 RBI. After two hard singles Sunday, he flung his bat 40 feet in disgust after a strikeout as if to say, “Me, Danny Espinosa, strike out?”
And which pitcher will tell Baker to get the heck off his mound? The guy with one brown eye.
Whether Baker’s managerial methods improve the competitive temperament of a franchise that has had several end-of-season disappointments remains to be seen. But if you ask the Mets — they’re the 25 guys lying flat on their backs looking blankly up at the sky after losing six out of seven games to the Nats in home-and-home series by a combined score of 39-19 — they probably think Washington has improved its comfort level on center stage far too much to suit the best interests of the Metropolitans.
The first and foremost man among this new Nats force is, without doubt, Daniel Thomas Murphy, the player formerly known as Nobody Special, who’s now mimicking the role of George Brett. He leads by tough, understated, old-school example, spiced with occasional puckish on-field humor and self-deprecation. Though he and Harper get along well, Murphy is a Bryce antipode in many ways. From the way he plays, it’s clear that nobody ever told Murphy that baseball was anything except fun.
And Murphy probably isn’t going to wear neon shoes to the All-Star Game that incorporate the Declaration of Independence, several battleships and, oh, somewhere, a corporate logo.
Murphy, who views New York with all the compassion that General William Tecumseh Sherman felt for Atlanta, has 21 RBI and seven homers against the Mets this season. On both Saturday and Sunday, the Mets had six players in their lineup with fewer RBI all season than Murphy has against the Mets in just 13 games.
Asked to explain how he could be so magnificent in the four games here, carrying the Nats almost by himself and crushing his former teammates with 10 RBI on three homers, two doubles, two singles and a walk, Murphy replied, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Not ‘carried.’ ”
That would be seven “no’s,” one for each of the teammates who he quickly mentioned by name, complete statistical citations of their worthiness or compliments to their character. He was even wise enough to start with Harper.
“I’m just a small piece of it, but I’m really excited to help us win games,” Murphy said. Cling to those words. T-shirt ’em. They will be Murphy’s hottest take until the end of his Nationals contract in 2018.
There’s many a slip or injury, ’twixt the cup and the lips, but the Nats are rolling at a 98-win pace, and though they no longer mention ring sizes, they don’t think anybody’s better.
“You don’t look at the number [of games ahead in the division] too much,” Baker said. “And you definitely don’t look back over your shoulder. You kind of glance in the rearview mirror. Then, one day, we might be up on the crest of a hill, look back, and we won’t see anybody in the rearview mirror.”