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Wednesday, October 02, 2019

Nationals 'Managed' Historic Win in Wild Card

The Washington Nationals celebrate following 4-3 win over Brewers

There’s an old adage in baseball: managers can’t win games; they can only lose them. In the case of second year manager of the Washington Nationals, Davey Martinez, he proved clearly in the Wild Card game of this improbable major league baseball season that managers can, in fact, win games. It was the first time in the Nats history since they moved to Washington from Montreal in 2005 that they ever advanced in the postseason  

It is rare to see a situation whereby a manager can push all the right buttons at the right time.  Yet, in the National League Wild Card game on October 1 before an uncharacteristically raucous crowd at Nationals Park in which the home team came from behind to defeat the Milwaukee Brewers, 4-3, Martinez did just that.

The magic that Martinez demonstrated actually began in late May when the Nats sunk to 12 games under .500 through the first 50 games—nearly a third of the season had transpired. He faced severe criticism from fans on social media and in the press for his managing of a frustratingly incompetent bullpen in which viable options were scarce.

Undaunted he guided the team—a blend of veterans and young players including 20 year-old phenom Juan Soto and eventual hero of the Wild Card game—to finish second in the Eastern Division and not only sealed a Wild Card berth but secured home field for the do or die game. The team finished the season with a flourish winning their last 8 games.  The victory in the Wild Card extended that streak.

Martinez skillfully crafted the 25-player roster for this game envisioning all the likely scenarios in a win or go home proposition.  He kept more bench players than usual to insert them in key spots, such as pinch running, pinch hitting or defensive replacements while paring the usual bullpen contingent in favor of as many as three starting pitchers that may be needed in relief.  There was no margin for error.

He assembled a batting order that was the best he could have used. Martinez opted to play Howie
Nationals manager Davey Martinez could not have done better.
Kendrick, a consistent hitter all season long in favor of Ryan Zimmerman, the longest-tenured National. Starting Zimmerman would have been a sentimental choice given the first baseman’s iconic position with the team. But Kendrick, who batted .344 during the season, was the correct pick.

For his part, Zimmerman would come off the bench when the situation warranted.  In a couple of spots Zimmerman was slated to pinch hit, but Martinez pulled him back in favor of other batters. In the eighth inning when the Nats rallied for 3 runs to take the lead, Zimmerman finally had his chance, and he came through with a broken bat single to center that kept the winning rally going.

As it turned out, all three pinch hitters selected by Martinez reached base safely and the one pinch runner he inserted scored.  You can’t do any better than that.

The pitching side of the ledger was also well-managed by Martinez. Starting the fiercely competitive Max Scherzer was the correct decision despite the right hander’s rather unsuccessful past post-seasons and a troublesome injury he endured a couple of months ago. Yet, Martinez was not about to allow Scherzer, who served up two home runs for the Brewers 3-0 early lead,  to stay in the game past the fifth inning (there is nothing to suggest that Scherzer protested his removal but Max never wants to leave a game he starts).

Instead, Martinez gave the ball to Cy Young candidate Stephen Strasburg, who completed three scoreless innings in smooth fashion and ultimately was credited with the win.

Juan Soto striking the decisive hit in the 8th inning
The ninth inning save opportunity was afforded Daniel Hudson, a trading deadline acquisition who was arguably the most consistent reliever on the staff, to seal the deal. The manager could have easily gone to southpaw starter Patrick Corbin but decided (again correctly) to allow Hudson to close out the game thereby saving Corbin for the opener in Los Angeles.

Another option was the heretofore regular Nats closer Sean Doolittle, but his performance has been erratic, and his recent injury appears to have had an effect on him. With no margin of error   Martinez made the right move one more time.

It is unclear how the Nats will fare against the powerful Dodgers in the Divisional Series as that team has one of the most potent line-ups in baseball and three previous and potential Cy Young starters taking the hill. But one thing is for sure, the Washington Nationals appear to have one heck of a manager to guide them through what comes next.

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