“I keep hearing about this ‘hump,’ ” said Manager Dave Martinez, who, as a bench coach in Chicago, helped the Cubs get over the biggest hump ever — one measured in years (108), not feet. How high has the Nats’ hump become? After winning 95 and 97 games in consecutive seasons, they fired Dusty Baker for not surmounting it.
Every conversation here bends involuntarily toward that hump, as if it had its own gravity. Ask Trea Turner his first impressions of Martinez and he says, “He’s really relaxed. To me, that’s very important when you’re trying to get over the hump or whatever.”
Or whatever, indeed. Since the league championship series arrived in 1969, just three teams have won the World Series with a manager in his first full season, and two of them took over their clubs in the middle of the previous year. Only Bob Brenly, with Arizona in 2001, was a pure rookie who won it all.
“These guys are tired of hearing they haven’t won yet, haven’t won a [playoff] series,” said General Manager Mike Rizzo, an executive with those champion Diamondbacks. “We want to get over the hump.”
The Nats should be sick and tired of that word. The more it ticks them off, the better. Because playing it cool — oh, if we just keep making the playoffs, we will break through sooner or later — isn’t getting it done. Seen from a historical perspective, this team has wasted its past 1,000 games.
D.C. fans have had lots of fun summer nights at Nationals Park. And having baseball back in the nation’s capital after 33 years has been a delight. But enough of that.
This camp has a bit of edge already. A Nats team that could be gut-shot and demoralized appears instead to be resolved and motivated — and pretty ticked off. The Nats share this vast facility with the Astros, and every day as they enter, they see Houston’s “world champions” sign. That reminder may be what they deserve. One Nationals player said flatly, “We should’ve been the team playing the Astros in that Series.”
That kind of symbolic prod is certainly what they need.
“You have to forgive yourself before you can move on and forgive other parties involved. That took me a while — until after the World Series,” said catcher Matt Wieters, who had a bad season, a worse playoff and a nightmare behind the plate in the 9-8 loss to the Cubs in Game 5 of the National League Division Series. “Once you decide to move on, you look back and use that as motivation.”
Baseball is now a have-or-have-not sport. “Looks like six or seven teams can win it,” reliever Sean Doolittle said. But no others, probably. In this imbalance era, the standard for greatness is astronomical. The Astros played with such exuberant, emotionally uncluttered joy in battle that their dugout may have been ankle-deep in adrenaline after every World Series win.
The Nats have a smart, hard-working clubhouse. They’re comrades who care. That’s needed to win 95 and 97 games back-to-back. But in the current world of mighty Astros, Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs, Indians, Nats and perhaps Red Sox, the 2018 champion will need incredible resilience, almost immunity, to the failures and misfortunes the Nats now know by heart. The chemistry, focus on detail and obsession with inside baseball that these Nats need will be huge. Coming off 2012 through 2017, there is no reason to think they have it now.
The Nats need something. They’re here in spring training trying to figure out what. They already know their roster, almost to the 25th man. But who are their leaders, besides Max Scherzer?
“Davey told us that the pioneers of the organization, those of us who’ve been here for years, have to step up as leaders,” Gio Gonzalez said. So who will they be? After mentioning Scherzer, Gonzalez said the Nats’ most important chemistry-type leader was “Shawn Kelley.”
Pick me up off the floor. Kelley’s a tough old warhorse and cheerful agitator, like Mark DeRosa in 2012. But if his arm doesn’t bounce back, Kelley, 33, may not even make the team. Granted, Gonzalez is part-amusing space cadet. But think of all the Nats with big talent who didn’t leap to his mind.
In a way, it may be lucky that Jayson Werth isn’t back. He demanded hard-nosed play but also hid his emotions behind a mask of wised-up cool. Bryce Harper deferred to him and developed a similar pose. The Nats’ collective temperature may need to rise from cool to hot. Can Harper, a force on the field but not a big presence in the clubhouse, show that, in his seventh season, he can be a team leader as well as a marketing-conscious star on a personal quest?
Martinez’s lack of star ego, combined with constant energy and interaction with players, may be a fit for the Nats. Baker and Davey Johnson survived life-threatening medical issues before they came to the Nats. They had many virtues but not high energy. Between their tenures, Matt Williams was a tree.
Martinez starts the days here — at 9:30 a.m. — with a different player picking a music playlist to wake up the boring stretching drills.
“I love music . . . and they seem to love it,” Martinez said.
Sometimes, only the players matter. Not the front office, the stats or the Li’l Genius managers. Sometimes, managers with dominant personalities, such as Earl Weaver, can even be a problem. Both Davey and Dusty came back to manage the Nats so they could win the World Series that everyone believed would stamp their ticket to Cooperstown. They tried to hide how much it meant — to them. But by October, their nerves showed, sometimes in the dugout during playoff games.
This week, one Nats regular said, “I think it’s impossible to ‘care too much.’ But sometimes a manager can want something so much that it’s almost like ‘caring too much.’ ”
Teams don’t win for their managers or aging owners or their towns. But they do win for themselves, especially when, over years, they have been bonded by pain.
The Nationals do not have that hard-bark identity yet. But they’re looking for it now. When you hear about Martinez’s Circle of Trust, discussions that are intended to build a better-knit and more pressure-proof culture, and how the Nats won’t explain exactly what it is, don’t be too quick to snicker.
Stephen “Strasburg said it best,” Martinez said. “‘You want to be in the circle.’”
It’ll require all 25. That’s a hard challenge. But not impossible.
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