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.”
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.”
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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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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