Here we are, entering the throat of August, and all is just peachy with the Washington Nationals. Except for the reliever who tossed his glove to the ground and glared into the dugout in the ninth inning of a 20-run game. And the reliever who was traded because, according to people with knowledge of the team’s thinking, he had been too critical of the club’s inner workings and clubhouse culture. And the starter and the closer who are still on the disabled list.
And here’s the manager’s assessment:
“I had a couple [of players] pop their heads in today already and say, ‘We’re in,’ ” Dave Martinez said. “We’re good. Everything’s good.”
The Nationals are in the section of the season that will determine whether they will establish relevance or fade into oblivion, and not everything is good. Yes, they beat the comically bad New York Mets, 5-3, on Wednesday afternoon, and they’re back above .500 — at least for the moment. If the remaining 50-something games were against the Mets, well, then, yeah, maybe everything’s good.
The reality, though, is this: These Nationals are fragile, and the man in the lead chair at the moment is made of porcelain. Martinez has not alienated the clubhouse — this is not a Matt Williams-in-2015 moment, not at all — and he has significant pockets of support, both in the dugout and the front office.
But for all the games Martinez played — 1,918 in the majors, over 16 seasons — and the decade he spent as a big league coach, he has never occupied his current seat, and it shows. With their season set to either take off or implode, the Nationals are in a position in which they must protect their rookie skipper rather than be led by him.
“You ask every manager that’s been in here: I’m in support of the manager at all times,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said Wednesday. “He’s the leader. He’s the leader in that clubhouse. I think Davey’s leading in a terrific manner.”
Except here’s the thing: The Nationals’ roster histrionics both before and after the trade deadline had to do with shoring up clubhouse support around that leader at least in part because Martinez couldn’t shore it up on his own.
First came Tuesday’s trade of reliever Brandon Kintzler, which had its genesis in the belief Kintzler was too free with clubhouse information and criticism, according to people with firsthand knowledge of the situation. In various pockets of the clubhouse, that move was met with frustration, indifference and satisfaction.
More to the point, though, was the mess at the end of a mess Tuesday night. The Nats held a lead over the Mets of — get this — 25-1. Shawn Kelley’s job, in that moment, is to get three outs. It is not to become obsessed with the umpiring crew, which was messing with Kelley’s pace of play.
Kelley gave up a three-run home run. With the Nationals up by 21 runs, he threw his glove to the ground. More important: He glared into the dugout. Did the Nats think he was showing up the manager?
“I did,” Rizzo said.
“For me, no,” Martinez said.
The GM chose a side and chose hard. The manager equivocated because he does not want to upset the apple cart — even if the apple about which he was worried already had been jettisoned.
Rizzo clearly felt the need to step in. He and Martinez and other Nats coaches and executives talked about Kelley long into the night after the blowout Tuesday. They decided to blast Kelley to the moon.
“It’s pretty cut-and-dried,” Rizzo said. “The act that he portrayed on the field last night was disrespectful to the name on the front of the jersey, the organization, specifically Davey Martinez.”
They told Kelley: You’re cut. Martinez said, “It stinks,” and he got just two hours of sleep. Rizzo neither tossed nor turned.
There’s no problem with an organization jettisoning employees because they publicly embarrass leadership. But the point here is that the Nationals either couldn’t or didn’t shore up either of these issues internally. Kintzler and Kelley might not have been the most prominent pieces in a bullpen that must produce if the Nats are to climb back into the National League East race. But that bullpen is without injured closer Sean Doolittle, and that puts more strain on all the other parts; Ryan Madson and Kelvin Herrera each gave up solo homers Wednesday. Both Kintzler and Kelley were useful, and they’re essentially not here for the same reason: In the estimation of some Nats decision-makers, they either publicly or privately brought the manager’s leadership into question.
And so, in the middle of this maelstrom, sits a 53-year-old baseball man who’s a bazillion games into his baseball life but just 107 games into his managerial career. This can’t just be about Dusty Baker no longer being here or about hiring someone who had never managed. Shoot, half the division leaders in baseball are managed by men who had no prior experience in the position: Alex Cora in Boston, Gabe Kapler in Philadelphia and Torey Lovullo in Arizona. Throw in Aaron Boone, in his first year with the Yankees, and Dave Roberts, now in his third year with the Dodgers, and there’s plenty of precedent for first-time managers to excel.
“I just think he’s a manager that you’re able to talk to each and every day,” said Martinez’s most vocal supporter in the dugout, Nats star Bryce Harper. “His door is wide open. He’ll do anything he can for anybody in this clubhouse.”
Such support is important. But it’s also worth pointing out that Martinez did not bench Harper when the slugger failed to run out a groundball last month in New York but did bench Trea Turner following a similar occurrence last week in Miami.
Players pay attention. They particularly home in on discrepancies. And what they’re watching is a manager who’s still learning — not the game and not how to relate to people but how to take charge of situations that might otherwise fester. The coaching staff and front office have to help. But the manager must take charge.
“What I’ve learned is [be] patient,” Martinez said. “I think I’ve been very patient in adversity. . . . For me, it’s about taking care of the seconds, and the minutes, hours and days will take care of themselves.”
The seconds have, at times, seemed to move pretty quickly for Martinez. Yet in the midst of all this, the Nationals won two ballgames they needed to win.
“Everything is behind us now,” Martinez said. “The trade deadline — everything. I’ve told those guys, I said, ‘If we play baseball like we’re capable of playing, this is going to be really interesting.’ ”
It’s already interesting. And really, everything they want is still in front of them. What they will find out is whether the man obsessing over those seconds can help make the days and weeks to come matter.
For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.
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