“I didn’t know if I wanted to sit there,” the modest Martinez said last week.
But in reality, picking the brains of that threesome was his fondest wish because they won a combined 15 pennants and eight World Series. Where else could you have a meal in which “How to Repeat” is on the menu?
“I listened,” Martinez said. Now when he is asked — several times a day — whether his Nationals can “repeat” as World Series winners, he always gives variations on the theme he heard that day — a message that he already lived by.
“Everybody says, ‘Repeat.’ No. It’s about ‘Compete.’ And repeat the process,” Martinez said. “That’s the only ‘repeat’ that you can control.
“And it’s repeating the process — go 1-0 today — that leads to winning.”
This sounds simplistic. However, it’s also perfect — an unusual coincidence.
What Torre, La Russa and Leyland impressed on Martinez was that a psychological letdown, a lack of motivation or even delayed exhaustion from an extra month of high-pressure playoff series in October would not be his biggest problem and perhaps not even an issue at all. The Title Trap would be a lack of day-to-day focus because the team’s gigantic big-picture victory — and a desire to experience it again — would undermine the very traits that got the Nationals their rings.
Because Martinez’s style is “Think small, work hard and have fun,” that meal with legends just convinced him that he didn’t have to change his approach or himself.
“I got here five days before pitchers and catchers had to report,” Martinez said. “We already had 20-some guys in camp. When you become a champion of something, there is a carry-over. They have the taste in their mouths. It’s fresh.
“But let’s just focus on one day at a time,” he said. “Let’s have fun. Let’s have that dance party again.”
Perhaps ace Max Scherzer epitomizes how energizing a title can be. “All we want to do is do it again,” he said after running in the outfield for an hour after a day’s work that included a 56-pitch bullpen session. Joe Ross, who has an inside track to be the fifth starter, ran with him for 35 minutes. Max ran the rest alone.
Some Nats have gained self-confidence thanks to last season. Reliever Daniel Hudson, sometimes thought to be too modest for his own 97-mph good, now says, “This game can beat you down mentally, mess with your confidence and get in the way of doing what you know you should: go and attack.
“I’ve always had the stuff. I don’t think I’ve ever had the stuff and the command that I did last year,” he added. “How many guys have finished off a World Series, 1-2-3 with a couple of K’s. And saved the wild-card game, too?”
From others, this might sound cocky. From Hudson, it’s, “Keep thinking that way.”
Because the Nats lost star free agent Anthony Rendon to the Los Angeles Angels, many assume they will be under extreme psychological pressure this season to compensate. And they will, no matter how often they chant “Go 1-0.”
However, the franchise seems realistic. The best chance for a fine year is, statistically speaking, within the two seasons after you win a Series. But if you just obsess about the next year, you’re begging for pain.
“It’s so hard to win the World Series because there are so many [postseason] levels to go through. That is the largest point” about repeating, General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “You do have to take history into account.”
Mean old history says that since 1995, when Major League Baseball went to three-tiered playoffs, the defending champion has repeated just twice — and never in the 21st century. However, nine of those 24 champs got as far as the next league championship series; most teams would grab those odds of making baseball’s final four.
The shock for fans of champs is how often they miss the playoffs the next year: 10 times. Many have a powerful bounce-back the following year. But that doesn’t soften the thud of going from a parade to “off” in October.
Cheerful as the Nats are this spring, with talk of how much their improved bullpen might compensate for the loss of Rendon, it would be wise for their fans to take a slightly longer view. With its top seven starting pitchers and six of its top seven relievers in 2020 all under team control for 2021, the window for this team (which hates the word “window”) looks quite open this year and next.
Many this spring ask whether Carter Kieboom will be able to take over at third base immediately or whether center fielder Victor Robles can bat at No. 1 or 2, allowing Trea Turner to hit third, or whether Robles himself could handle No. 3? Also, can Wander Suero or Tanner Rainey become back-end relievers? Can the trio of Ross, Austin Voth or Erick Fedde produce one mid-rotation starter?
We would do better to tweak such questions. Can those things happen in 2020 or 2021 because, after this season, only Sean Doolittle and Kurt Suzuki probably will be free agents, while there may be payroll flexibility to add an impact free agent in 2021.
The Nats are still seen by some as a team that stumbled into Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper with the No. 1 overall picks in consecutive years, fed off it but, in time, will outlive that good fortune and drift back into the pack.
The Nats disagree and believe that winning a title the year after subtracting Harper, while a bit odd, is no shock because they see themselves as contenders almost every year. And last season just happened to be the one when the tumblers fell in place in October to crack the title vault. That Natitude, while it lasts, reduces “repeat” pressure because they plan on sticking around the top.
“Your culture is your culture. Ours is to be constantly competitive,” Rizzo said. “Our character comes out at tough times. When things are at their worst, we have to be at our best. . . . That’s how it was last year.”
Please excuse the Nats if, with their spring training schedule starting Saturday against the (ahem) Astros, they still feel almost annoyingly wonderful.
“I’m still like, ‘Wow,’ I can’t totally believe it,” Doolittle said. “I’ve played in the big leagues for eight years, and the World Series was this abstract thing. ‘How the heck do you get one of those [rings]?’
“We did catch some breaks. But so many guys stepped up. That feeling is really motivating. You just want more of it.”
That’s the cheery view from MLB’s precarious mountaintop, where few stay for long. Like the tightrope walkers say: One step at a time and don’t look down.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.