Martinez guiding light in Nats' journey to NLCS
Skipper showed ability to innovate, improvise against Dodgers
ST. LOUIS -- In a playoff series, little things matter. The Nationals believed this so staunchly they dismissed a manager who won back-to-back National League East titles in part because they believed they were outmatched in those settings, the five-game NL Division Series that had been the organization’s downfall on four separate occasions. It’s what prompted general manager Mike Rizzo to actually utter the phrase, “Winning a lot of regular-season games and winning divisions is not enough" as he set out to find a new skipper.
This was the job description and expectations that Dave Martinez were handed from day one in D.C. He would be judged not by what the Nats did for six months during the regular season, but for what he could accomplish in the postseason. He brought camels to his first Spring Training as a nod to get the Nationals over the "hump." And although it took longer than he hoped, he got them there, further than any manager in team history. On Friday night at Busch Stadium, Washington will take on the Cardinals in Game 1 of the NL Championship Series.
“I did finally last night, got to process everything,” Martinez said during a conference call on Thursday. “The boys are just relentless. They never quit. We get on a plane. We're heading to St. Louis to play for a championship. Tell the boys, just keep it going. We've done this before. We understand how to get back into that groove and you see it every day with these guys. They're a lot of fun, a lot of fun to watch, a lot of fun in the dugout. Let's just keep it going.”
These Nationals are playing for the NL pennant and Martinez deserves credit for guiding them to this point.
He was handed one of the worst bullpens for a postseason team in MLB history, so he devised a plan to avoid the untrustworthy relievers, and he executed it to perfection. Martinez got his starting pitchers, those relentless creatures of habit, to turn their between-starts side sessions into relief appearances. And then, he deployed them perfectly. He pushed Max Scherzer deep enough into the Wild Card Game and used Stephen Strasburg to hold the score.
Martinez surprised the Dodgers by using Scherzer for a relief appearance in Game 2 of the NLDS. Even after Patrick Corbin faltered during his relief outing in Game 3, Martinez had the confidence to use the lefty again for four outs in Game 5. Martinez knew he needed a bridge to get Corbin to matchup with the Dodgers' lefties in Game 5, so he turned to Tanner Rainey, who got the job done. And give Martinez credit for sticking with infielder Howie Kendrick, despite a disappointing NLDS overall, and being rewarded when Kendrick swatted a grand slam in the 10th.
“In the playoffs, you can do some stuff that you don't normally do in the regular season,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “I think every game is so important, you've got to maybe put some guys into some situations that they're not used to being put in. But [Martinez] is kind of working with what he has and, obviously, did a great job.”
That’s not to say Martinez is perfect as an in-game tactician. In Game 2, he issued a baffling intentional walk in the ninth inning to put the tying run on base and bring the winning run to the plate for a small platoon advantage. Handcuffed by his limited options in the bullpen, he has often pushed his starting pitchers deeper into games than they should go. In the aftermath of the NLDS, however, it was Dodgers manager Dave Roberts catching scrutiny for his head-scratching decisions, while Martinez showed his ability to innovate and improvise, especially with the Nats’ season on the line.
It’s part of the reason why they have managed to avoid elimination three times already this postseason, becoming the first team in MLB history to win two elimination games after trailing by three runs. Martinez will argue the Nats are used to it. After starting the season 19-31, every game felt like a must-win to dig themselves out of that hole.
“I've been saying it all year how he's been the same guy,” Zimmerman said. “I’ve had a lot of managers, obviously, and they all come into Spring Training, saying they're going to stay this way no matter what. They’re going to be here for us, it's going to be us, we don't care what anyone says.
“As soon as stuff goes bad, every manager has pretty much thrown that out the window and gone into self preservation mode. Where Davey honestly has stayed the same. He's positive every day, same energy. He always trusts his players and has his player’s back. I don’t think it’s any different this year. Even when we started as poorly as we did, he stayed the same.”
Now comes the challenge of a seven-game NLCS.
With a short five-game series and the off-days between games, Martinez was able to manipulate the NLDS schedule and the winner-take-all Wild Card Game to ride his star-studded rotation as often as possible. It’s unclear if that pitching strategy will work in a longer series, especially with Games 3,4,5 all played on consecutive nights. Martinez might have to turn to some of his actual relievers to get past the Cardinals, or perhaps, he has crafted another plan to help lead his team past another round.
“I’m going to sit and talk to our analytical guys, and decide,” Martinez said. “Like I said before, these games right here, you try to go 1-0, like we've done all year long, and you try to win that first game. These guys understand what we're playing for, but with that being said, you got to make sure we have our starting pitchers ready to go each game.”