The Washington Nationals shouldn’t have hired Dave Martinez last offseason. Now they shouldn’t fire him.
Over the past three weeks, the Nats have refused to quit, despite premature salary-dump trades by ownership, daily deficits on the scoreboard, an injury-drained roster and enough rain delays to make Noah build a backup ark.
The best of Martinez has been on display in these worst of Nats times.
On Friday and Saturday, the Nats sat through four rain delays that totaled eight hours. Yet when both games were finally played — the latter ending at 1:42 a.m. Sunday at Nationals Park — the Nats had swept a doubleheader from the Chicago Cubs, who have the best record in the National League.
The second of those games, a 6-5 win, marked the sixth time since Aug. 21 — when Daniel Murphy and Matt Adams were traded and plenty of clubs might have mailed it in — that Martinez’s charges came back to win against very long odds. In those games, their win expectancy at one point had shrunk to 5, 6, 9, 10, 13 and, on Sunday morning, 12 percent.
The next time Martinez begins one of his sincere, cliche-packed news conferences with “I was proud of the way the boys fought” and you want to throw your remote at the screen, just remember: Even when the Nationals get picked off or give up a homer on an 0-2 pitch (a major league-leading 15 times this year), they almost always play hard for Martinez. It matters.
The managerial flaws that were exposed early in the season have been improved, especially the communication with his bullpen during games so he doesn’t burn out the arms of his relievers. Martinez’s willingness to learn and be open with players may contribute to the pride his team has shown after it has been buried, exhumed and, just to make sure, pronounced dead again.
“Davey deserves a lot of credit for the way we’ve played when it would have been so easy — multiple times — for this team to pack it in,” said all-star closer Sean Doolittle, who returned after nearly two months on the disabled list in the win that ended at 1:42 a.m. “It’s been a tough kind of first year for a manager. Bad luck and bad timing on injuries. They came in bunches to one part of the team or another.
“We lost key guys for months,” said Doolittle, one of 12 key players to miss at least eight weeks on the DL. “But he’s been the same guy every day — upbeat, positive. At times, he could have been visibly shaken or seemed panicked. He never did.”
Would it have been wiser for Doolittle and perhaps Stephen Strasburg, who are so vital to the Nats’ 2019 hopes, just to blow off September, stay on the DL, avoid any chance of further injury and return for spring training?
“I’m really proud of the way the team has been battling. That’s part of why I was glad to be able to get back,” said Doolittle, whose bullpen mates refused to use the new (old-school) Nats bullpen cart until Doolittle could take the first ride Saturday.
If Strasburg and Doolittle finish the season healthy, even though neither has a fastball that’s quite back to its normal velocity, then chalk one up for team morale and momentum for next season. If they don’t, it’s another blow to positivity.
Many Nats fans have spent the season acting as if Martinez kicked Dusty Baker’s dog, poisoned the grapes in his Northern California vineyard and single-handedly trashed this Nats season with his rookie-manager ineptitude.
No first-year manager should have replaced Baker, especially with a veteran, ready-to-win-now team. And the Nats probably lost a few extra games in a miserable season because Martinez was getting on-the-job training. On the list of culprits worthy of some blame, Martinez joins almost every person and every part of the Nats’ organization. But much of Martinez’s learning process has taken place.
Unless the Nats do a total fold at the wire or a highly qualified veteran manager becomes available, why would you ax someone who has received so much backing in recent days by Nationals veterans, including Scherzer, Bryce Harper and ex-Nat Murphy?
The Nats have gone through the worst with Martinez — his inexperience with handling a bullpen and his infatuation with leaving starting pitchers in too long so they could build confidence or they could “get him a win.”
In a brutal season, Martinez has shown where he was strongest: building personal relationships and boosting morale with a calm, consistent presence. But he also has done something few new managers have the confidence to attempt: admit that they need to learn, then systematically try to improve.
Doolittle said Martinez’s handling of the bullpen has gotten better. “The communication to the bullpen — about who they want to get ready and in what scenario — has run more efficiently,” the closer said. “I give Davey credit — his door has really been open. I’ve had several meetings with him. We all understand how difficult that job is, especially in the NL. You may have to think several moves ahead. If you try to cover everything that could happen, you’d end up with three guys trying to throw off two mounds.”
Concerning Martinez’s return next year, General Manager Mike Rizzo said last week, “I haven’t considered any other scenario.” That qualifies as support. But it certainly doesn’t rule out the future consideration of “other scenarios,” especially if folks in the Lerner family have their own ideas, as they did with Baker.
Keeping Martinez, who is on an inexpensive, three-year contract, is no easy decision. Any villager who wants to keep a pitchfork and torch handy has my sympathy. After all, Martinez’s hand has been on the tiller during one of the worst division flops on record. Since 2017, the Nats have fallen in the standings by 33 and 35 games to Atlanta and Philadelphia.
If the Nationals (71-72) finish under .500, the Lerners, who have had seven managers since 2009, may fall into a favorite fan fallacy: When you think your manager’s IQ and your team’s win total are close to identical, be suspicious — of yourself.
Nevertheless, the single biggest team-construction failure of the Nats’ owners and GM has been an inability to identify an excellent long-term manager and maintain the same high-quality coaching staff around him. Part of grace under pressure, which the Nats have definitely not mastered, may come from familiarity and mutual self-confidence — rather than churning managers and coaches.
Next season, the Nats will be talented, with veteran free agent additions. But they hope that they also will be dependent on players still in the early stages of their careers, such as outfielders Victor Robles and Juan Soto, as well as starting pitchers Joe Ross, Erick Fedde and Jefry Rodriguez, and several young relievers.
Since 2012, the Nats have had many things. Continuity has not been one of them. It was a foolish risk to hire a rookie manager to follow Baker. Now, after a year on the job and after showing a willingness to learn, the risk with Martinez has changed. It would probably be foolish to blame and boot him.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.