Dave Martinez seems secure to return as Nationals manager. At least for now.

Dave Martinez seems secure to return as Nationals manager. At least for now.

Jonathan Newton The Washington Post

A year after the Washington Nationals parted ways with Dusty Baker following two 95-win seasons and two five-game losses in the National League Division Series, the same Nationals roster fell out of playoff contention, undertook a once-unthinkable player sell-off and is now fighting to finish the season above .500.

And yet, when asked last week if first-year Manager Dave Martinez would return in 2019, General Manager Mike Rizzo said, “I haven’t considered any other scenario.” Asked for comment about Martinez, who was signed to the longest managerial deal in franchise history, the Lerner family deferred to Rizzo’s statement, which a team spokeswoman said “speaks for the entire organization.” Managing Principal Owner Mark Lerner felt no need to comment further.

When Rizzo made that statement, he seemed to choose his words carefully. After all, after last season he had all but guaranteed Baker would return, then ownership decided against it. By saying he “had not considered any other scenario” regarding Martinez, Rizzo left the door open for the Lerners to do so, even though he does not believe Martinez is to blame for the team’s disappointing season.

But in saying Rizzo’s statement speaks for everyone, the Lerner family is both avoiding an endorsement of its own while endorsing the one given by Rizzo. So no one in the front office has made any guarantees. No one has expressed any public displeasure or uncertainty around Martinez, either.

“Honestly, I’ve never worried about my job. I never did,” Martinez said. “We talk every day and [Rizzo] has been awesome. Ownership has been great. I talk to them. They’ve been good. There’s not one moment where I’ve feared I’m going to lose my job.”

[From July: Players express concern about Martinez’s handling of pitching staff]

To anyone on the outside who watched a team with World Series expectations cease threatening to fulfill them some time midsummer, that notion might seem absurd. But on the inside, the idea that Martinez deserves a second chance strains credulity far less. In a season loaded with disappointment, occasionally marred by controversy, punctuated with opinions shared publicly by veterans, he has not lost the clubhouse.

“Me personally, I think it’s kind of dumb when people blame him,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “Managing and coaching is so tough. Davey and our whole staff care so much, yet they can only do so much. It’s on us to do our job . . . For me, I love Davey. He’s fun. He’s smart. He’s always thinking of new ways to get better and try to work on things. I think [the criticism] is kind of unfair because we just haven’t played that well.”

Jonathan Newton

The Washington Post

Martinez retains the backing of Nationals players. Said Martinez: ‘I think I’ve earned their trust and that’s hard to do.’

By traditional baseball fan logic, if a team loses it does so because the manager is making the wrong decisions, not motivating his players or any number of other personal failings. When it wins, it does so because the manager stayed out of the way enough to let the players succeed, and it is on their efforts that the winning season is built.

But if Martinez is to be held responsible for bullpen failings and too many close losses, shouldn’t he also receive some credit for this team’s late surge amid great adversity, for its recent stubbornness late in games, for an unmistakable unwillingness to quit?

“I think he’s a good man. I think he’s a good baseball man. I think in the midst of a lot of trials, he was always positive,” said Daniel Murphy, who offered unsolicited support for Martinez in his return to Nationals Park with the Chicago Cubs last week. “We always played hard for him, which I think is a reflection of the manager, even when things aren’t going well.”

Martinez has fielded criticism over and over this season. The main and most-discussed critique to emerge was his handling of the pitching staff, particularly the bullpen.

Grumblings among big league relievers are the rule, not the exception, and most managers are asked to explain their pitching decisions on a nightly basis. But earlier in the season, Nationals relievers seemed extra worried about some of Martinez’s tendencies.

[From August: Rizzo had to shore up clubhouse because Martinez couldn’t]

A few veterans worried he overworked his relievers, or that he was not receiving messages about how they were feeling each day. Some expressed concern that he warmed up far too many relievers on any given night, as if preparing for every possible scenario at the expense of their health. Every reliever asked about those problems since has said that communication has improved, and that the relationship is a work in progress.

“We have days when we have great communication. We still have days where the communication could be better, but his door has always been open to us,” Sean Doolittle, one of the few relievers to be a part of this year’s bullpen from start to finish, said. “We’re constantly working on perfecting that communication and he’s been receptive to all the stuff we’ve said. We’ve had productive conversations about it. As a whole, it’s gotten better as the season has gone on.”

“I think communication is one of the big keys,” bullpen coach Henry Blanco said. “In the beginning, it took us time to figure it out. But right now, I think everybody is on the same page and trying to keep building that relationship with all of us.”

After published reports in July about players grumbling about Martinez’s bullpen management and the Nationals’ clubhouse culture, Rizzo issued an edict that strongly suggested players should stop airing criticism through the media. Although Rizzo’s declaration, along with the abrupt trades of Brandon Kintzler and Shawn Kelley, may have tempered some players’ willingness to speak openly, relievers in recent weeks without exception have praised Martinez’s willingness to chat, listen and be honest with them.

John McDonnell

The Washington Post

Several players questioned Martinez’s handling of the bullpen earlier in the season. ‘We still have days where the communication could be better, but his door has always been open to us,’ said closer Sean Doolittle.

All of that, Doolittle and others said, has fostered mutual respect, an antidote to occasional disagreement or frustration. Even his toughest conversations, like those he has had with Sammy Solis — the reliever veterans felt Martinez was pushing past his threshold most often in the season — do not seem to have fostered grudges.

“I respect Davey for shooting me straight. He’s never beat around the bush. He’s like, ‘Hey, we need you to get outs. Right now it’s not working,’” Solis said. “I accepted it because you have to. It’s a good relationship. It definitely developed over the season because I didn’t know him, he didn’t know me, he didn’t know my pitching style, the whole thing. I really respect what he’s done this season.”

In a similarly disappointing season in 2015, Manager Matt Williams could not maintain the respect of his clubhouse, which splintered because of it. If recent results, late comebacks, and good energy from an exhausted roster are any indication, Martinez’s clubhouse has coalesced.

“Talk to the boys. They’ll tell you. I appreciate them very much,” Martinez said. “I think I’ve earned their trust and that’s hard to do. Remember in spring training, we talked about the inner circle? I truly believe that’s what it’s all about. If I can take care of the inner circle, everything else will take care of itself.”

Endorsements have come from a variety of places. Bryce Harper goes out of his way to praise Martinez. Murphy did the same. Turner was unequivocal in his endorsement. Max Scherzer was one of a few veterans to confront Kelley when he felt the reliever showed up the manager. He does not believe Martinez is to blame for this season.

John McDonnell

The Washington Post

Harper is among the Nationals who go out of their way to praise the manager, who hoisted the outfielder aloft after Harper won the Home Run Derby at the All-Star Game in July.

Adam Eaton has been one of Martinez’s most vocal supporters within the clubhouse — so much so that he used a team meeting to reassure Martinez of the team’s support for him after the tumultuous week leading up to the July trade deadline, according to people familiar with the situation, who requested anonymity so they could speak more openly.

“Davey, for me anyways, has been a terrific manager. He hears the heartbeat of his team. I think he relates really well to us,” Eaton said. “Whether he puts us in the best situation or not in the best situation to be productive, I think he’s done his best. I appreciate him for that. I’ve enjoyed him.”

Those words of support, combined with the way the team has played late in the season, provide plenty of evidence to those in the Nationals organization who will argue for Martinez to stay — though Rizzo and the Lerners have indicated there might be no need to argue that point at all.

For a team that has seen four managers in six seasons, the optics of firing another — and the notion of paying Martinez not to manage — could seem intolerable. At some point, when no manager has been able to carry the Nationals further than the National League Division Series, one could conclude the problem might lie elsewhere.

Perhaps, at this point, keeping a man with the respect of his players, well-tested composure and a willingness to learn might be a risk worth taking. For one reason or another, the Nationals seem to have decided the same thing — at least for the moment. As their history with managers has shown, these things can change.

Read more Nationals coverage: Boswell: Juan Soto is no fluke Svrluga: Will Ryan Zimmerman retire as a National? Preview: Nats look to stay hot in final trip to Miami

© The Washington Post Company

Despite a disappointing season in his first year as manager, Dave Martinez is optimistic he will return in 2019. “Honestly, I’ve never worried about my job.”
Nationals vs. Braves – Game Recap

Nationals vs. Braves – Game Recap

The Cardinals’ momentum was short lived. L.A. plates five runs in the top of the fifth to go up 8-4. The rally was capped by a laser-beam home run from Yasiel Puig, his second of the game and fourth in two days. According to Statcast, the exit velocity on Puig’s second homer was 114 mph, with a launch angle of just 17 degrees. That’s a laser.

Could Adrian Sanchez be playing his way into a second base competition?

Could Adrian Sanchez be playing his way into a second base competition?


Sanchez did not appear to hit this baseball well, but he’s been hitting the ball well against left-handed pitching. (Brad Mills/USA TODAY Sports)

ATLANTA — Adrian Sanchez will start at second base against a left-handed starter Sunday, in keeping with Dave Martinez’s recent lineup habits.

Since the Nationals made Sanchez a September call-up, Martinez has found playing time for the infielder on days like these, and his splits support the plan. In a small sample size of 21 at-bats against left-handed pitching, Sanchez is hitting .333 with an .857 OPS. In a smaller sample size of 15 at-bats against right-handed pitching, he is hitting .067 with a .192 OPS. He was already the most reliable defensive second baseman on this roster, less flashy than Wilmer Difo, but more consistent. As a result, while Michael A. Taylor has fallen into a late-game-replacement role and Andrew Stevenson waits for one pinch-hit at-bat a day, Sanchez has pushed his way into September playing time, which can be hard to come by with an expanded roster.

Sanchez was never considered an elite prospect. He played 10 years in the minors before getting his first major league call-up last year. At 28, he has yet to push himself beyond Class AAAA qualification — the unofficial category of players who never quite stick in the big leagues, but always seem to play well enough at Class AAA to get another call-up. For a team that will likely be looking for a starting second baseman next year, could Sanchez be playing his way into consideration for a big league roster spot, providing enough offense that the Nationals would be fine starting next season with Wilmer Difo, Howie Kendrick and Sanchez piecing together at-bats?

Perhaps. Should the Nationals decide to reach outside the organization for a starting second baseman, while bumping Difo down to a utility role, Sanchez might find himself back in Syracuse. His minor league splits do not suggest he will be able to maintain his current pace against lefties. He actually fared worse against left-handed pitching than right-handed pitching in 2017. This season in Class AAA, he hit .247 with a .651 OPS against lefties and .228 with a .621 OPS against righties.

When the Nationals called up Sanchez this year, Martinez said Syracuse Manager Randy Knorr told him Sanchez had figured something out against lefties and was hitting them consistently. But Sanchez is also the rare player who seems to hit better in the majors than he does in the minors. He is a .316 career hitter against lefties in the big leagues in 40 plate appearances. Difo, by comparison, has hit .233 in more than 200 career big league plate appearances against lefties.

In other words, as the Nationals assess their second base situation next year, Sanchez might be playing his way into a conversation — if not the one about the everyday job, then certainly about regular bench duty as a right-handed bat off the bench. That he can play the infield and has tried the outfield should help, too. Then again, a lot can change between now and spring training.

WASHINGTON NATIONALS (75-74)

Victor Robles CF

Trea Turner SS

Bryce Harper RF

Anthony Rendon 3B

Juan Soto LF

Ryan Zimmerman 1B

Matt Wieters C

Adrian Sanchez 2B

Tanner Roark P

ATLANTA BRAVES (83-65)

Ronald Acuna Jr. LF

Ozzie Albies 2B

Freddie Freeman 1B

Nick Markakis RF

Charlie Culberson 3B

Ender Inciarte CF

Tyler Flowers C

Dansby Swanson SS

Sean Newcomb P

Video: Juan Soto reaches rare milestone with 20th home run

Video: Juan Soto reaches rare milestone with 20th home run

Nationals rookie Juan Soto‘s meteoric rise has hardly gone unnoticed this year, and on Friday, he added to an already-impressive resume with a solo shot off of Kevin Gausman‘s 95.1-MPH fastball in the fourth inning. Not only did the 383-footer narrow the Nationals’ deficit against the Braves to just one run, but it also placed the outfielder in rare company: At 19 years old, he’s only the third teenager to record at least 20 home runs in major league history.

The two former rookies who also share this record? One of them still belongs to the Nationals, as Bryce Harper was the last to do it after finishing his age-19 season with 22 home runs in 2012. The first player to record the feat, however, was Tony Conigliaro of the 1964 Red Sox. The young outfielder rounded out his first year in the big leagues with an as-yet unchallenged record of 24 total homers before his 20th birthday.

Soto has been white-hot since his call-up in May, but managed to ramp up the intensity even more over his last few games this month. Entering Friday’s contest, he’s batted .364/.451/.636 with three homers and a 1.087 OPS in 51 plate appearances since the start of September, and is proving a stiff competitor to Atlanta rookie Ronald Acuña as award season draws near.

Wire Taps: Stephen Strasburg gets his groove back; Victor Robles leads off; Carter Kieboom rises in prospect rankings

Wire Taps: Stephen Strasburg gets his groove back; Victor Robles leads off; Carter Kieboom rises in prospect rankings

Well, there goes the 16-win streak.

Here’s the news from Atlanta:

Victor Robles will lead off for the Nationals against the Cubs. For real this time. (WaPo)
“I’m very excited to see him lead off and hopefully he jump-starts us and gets things going,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said Thursday afternoon. “He’s an exciting player and if he gets on base things happen, so I’m looking forward to him going out there and playing.”

NL East storylines by the numbers (MLB.com)
“But if you want to know why the Nats aren’t a serious contender this year, start by looking at the rotation. Max Scherzer has been his usual brilliant self, but beyond Scherzer, it’s been rough. The ERA by all starters other than Scherzer is 4.59.”

Nats players initiate auction to help Doug Harris (MASN)
The Nationals are fighting to get Harris a new treatment — CAR-T — that could present a breakthrough.

Velocity still down, but Strasburg pitching better (MASN)
Stephen Strasburg is in the lower-90s, but he’s getting Strasburgian results, which is all Davey Martinez has wanted to see all year.

MLB Pipeline’s hitting prospects on the rise (MLB.com)
“[Carter] Kieboom made the biggest leap of any player on the preseason list, going from 90 to 34 in a year that saw him go to the Futures Game and reach Double-A at age 20, all while setting career highs in home runs, RBIs and total bases.”

Audacity of Joe and changeups you can believe in: A speechwriter moonlights as a ballwriter for a day (The Athletic)
Cody Keenan, President Obama’s speechwriter, took an assignment to cover the Cubs in Washington D.C. It’s fun, it’s witty, it’s not quite normal.

Three P-Nats Make Carolina League Postseason All-Star Team (NationalsProspects.com)
Wil Crowe, Ian Sagdal, and Rhett Wiseman all made splashes in the Mills Cup playoffs.

Nationals' Joe Ross: Locked in for Thursday's start

Nationals' Joe Ross: Locked in for Thursday's start

Ross has been confirmed as the Nationals‘ starting pitcher for Thursday’s game against the Cubs.

The Nationals endured no further rainouts after a postponement Monday resulted in Washington and Philadelphia playing a doubleheader Tuesday, so Ross will slot into the rotation Thursday for his first official start in the big leagues this season. After a lengthy recovery from Tommy John surgery, Ross was activated from the 60-day disabled list Sept. 4 and took the hill that same day against the Cubs, but he pitched only 1.2 innings before the contest was postponed due to inclement weather. Though his statistics were wiped out as a result, Ross looked good in the brief cameo, with his fastball even hitting 97 miles per hour on the radar gun. While the Nationals will probably monitor his pitch counts carefully during Thursday’s start and any subsequent turns he makes, Ross could make for an interesting upside pickup in deeper leagues after he occasionally flashed signs of dominance prior to succumbing to the elbow injury in 2017.

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