Two days before the Washington Nationals hit bottom at 19-31, I wrote: “If I were asked whether the Nats should fire Dave Martinez, I would, unhappily and with a sincere desire to be proved wrong, say, ‘Probably.’
“If the Nats decide to give Martinez more time, with a healthier lineup and a weak schedule, to get up to $200 million-payroll cruising speed by the All-Star Game, that might work. But . . . if lame fundamentals and a poor (and poorly managed) bullpen keeps dogging the Nats, then I will understand if the team decides that someone, maybe anyone, would be better . . . than Dave Martinez.”
There was plenty of praise for Martinez personally but lots of specific criticism of his managing. But you don’t care. You want to hear what Martinez’s team thinks of him now. Especially, you want context for what comes next as the Nats play the first of 14 remaining games against the defending National League East champion Atlanta Braves on Thursday.
The Nats and Martinez will be tested severely. Maybe the Braves will be, too. But just as the Nats have saved their season, so their manager’s prospects have been revived, too. I may get my wish: a “sincere desire to be proved wrong.” The Nats players sure think so.
“I like how he didn’t change anything. It’s funny how things are spun: One day, somebody doesn’t know anything; now, he’s a genius,” said shortstop Trea Turner, whose broken finger and hitting slump when he returned coincided with 50 games when the Nats were 21-29. “He believed in us, and we believed in him.”
“It’s easy to kick people when they are down: ‘It must be the manager’s fault,’ ” catcher Kurt Suzuki said.
“Half our starting lineup was hurt,” Suzuki added of the Nats, whose projected Nos. 1-3-4-5 hitters missed 126 games because of injuries. All had rusty slumps after they returned, too. “There was all this outside noise. I’m sure he hears it, but you can never tell. This guy understands the grind. He kept us having fun.”
Well, maybe not having fun at 19-31 but not in total chaos, either.
“He didn’t panic,” closer Sean Doolittle said. “Every day, same kind of even-keel guy. For me, as a vet, I respected that.”
What about that historically awful bullpen, which still has the fifth-worst bullpen ERA in the past 65 years?
“Nobody looks like they can run the bullpen well” when the ERA is over 7.00, Suzuki said. “Nobody is talking about how well the bullpen is doing now. Nobody is there to praise them. They’re a huge part of why we’re winning.”
In a stunning reversal, the bullpen ERA has been 2.91 during the current 31-12 streak. In a season in which bullpens everywhere have been torched, only one team has a bullpen ERA better than 3.76 for the whole season.
Perhaps veteran Ryan Zimmerman best sums up both the lousy injured offense and the nervous-breakdown bullpen that turned the eighth inning into the “Evil Dead.”
“What was the manager supposed to do exactly?” Zimmerman said. “Managers have an influence. But the game is always about the players. It’s always on us.”
A big part of the Nats’ flip is simply that, as the oldest team in baseball, with 15 players who are 30 and three others 29, they mostly manage themselves.
“We got punched in the mouth early. . . . This game will eat you alive. If it’s not this veteran group of guys, I don’t know if we turn it around,” Brian Dozier said recently. However, no Nat is a bigger booster of Martinez — who, after a 15-year playing career, trusts veterans and helps them endure the downs — than Dozier, who called him this week, “a leader of men because he treats us as adults. . . .
“I love managers that played. When the bad times come, they can relate,” Dozier added. “When I got my 1,000th hit, Dave walked by and said, ‘Only 600 to go.’ He meant 600 for me to pass him” with 1,599 hits.
Managers such as Martinez have always been around: well liked, funny at times, doing comical things to loosen up “the boys,” being empathetic and making the standard in-game moves. But they seldom have an original approach or motivational knack when things slide, such as starting 19-31 when you have a Big Three at the top of your rotation and Doolittle at the back.
Some of them won pennants, such as Joe Altobelli, Danny Murtaugh, Tommy Lasorda, Charlie Manuel, Dusty Baker, Joe Maddon, Terry Francona and, back in time, Jolly Cholly Grimm and others. Some won World Series. Casey Stengel even won a lot of World Series.
The problem is that plenty of these Just One of the Guys skippers can’t manage worth a darn. They just sit in the chair, for years, and are “good guys” or get along with the GM. A team with talent carries them to lots of wins, but they never get over the hump. It can take forever to fire them, such as Danny Ozark or beloved Don Zimmer.
Martinez is a prototype of this genial easy-riding breed. “He’s a lot like Gardy: upbeat, jokes a lot,” Dozier said, referring to Detroit Tigers Manager Ron Gardenhire, who won division titles with the Minnesota Twins with little visible talent.
“I’d put him up there with every single manager I’ve had,” said Suzuki, 35, who has changed teams five times. “He’s everything you want: comfortable, relaxed. When we were pressing a little bit, he kept us loose. ‘Be patient.’ Take it slowly, didn’t look at the standings. Davey’s like a player. He jokes around. We bust his [chops] in the dugout during games. He loves it.
“He doesn’t have to act like, ‘I’m the manager.’ He’s just himself.”
Players trust Martinez’s words, even when they have edge.
“I’m about as honest as I can get,” Martinez said this week, almost sheepish to compliment himself for anything. “They might not like everything I have to say. Hopefully, in three, four, five days, they’ll respect me for saying it.”
We have learned that Martinez is that rare person who can go 212 games into the job he has always wanted, have a fire-the-bum 101-111 record, and still not show any angry panic or lost faith either in public or with his team.
The past two months have bought him time to show what he can do. The four games now against the Braves — and the 10 more to follow — will just be the first of many tests. Players who already liked Martinez when they were playing lousy now sound as if they’re prepared to believe in him when they’re playing their best.
What we don’t know yet is whether, over a long season and perhaps multiple years, Martinez is one of the good guys who is also a truly good manager.