The Nationals entered their June 12 doubleheader with the San Francisco Giants having dropped 10 of their last 15. Manager Davey Martinez was looking for a way to jumpstart his offense, which had just been shut out in the first game of the series.
Sitting in the dugout next to bench coach Tim Bogar, Martinez was reminded of a prank that he and his teammates used to play on new bat boys. Then it came to him.
“Go and get me a key,” Martinez said to Bogar.
“I need a key.”
“Just go get me a key.”
Bogar found one and brought it back to Martinez, who tied a shoestring around it make a lanyard. He brought it to the players and showed it to them.
“Hey, here’s the key,” Martinez said.
“The key for what?”
“The key to the batter’s box. Open up the batter’s box and start swinging the bat.”
Martinez and his teammates used to get a laugh out of asking new bat boys to find them the key to the batter's box, which of course doesn't exist. It took some of them searching across the entire clubhouse before they figured it out. In an attempt to help his players loosen up a bit, Martinez decided to create his own key and try to unlock the Nationals' bats.
Ever since that doubleheader, the Nationals have done just that. The offense has scored the third-most runs in the majors over that span, fueled by a historic home run tear from Kyle Schwarber. A .218 hitter heading into the two-for with the Giants, Schwarber hit 16 home runs in 18 games to set a Nationals record for the most home runs in a month.
The results have shown in the standing as well. Washington was eight games behind the Mets in the NL East before the key was introduced. Now, the Nationals are just two back of New York after going 14-3 to close out the month — baseball’s best record over that stretch.
“It’s taken off,” Martinez said of the key on a Zoom call Wednesday. “So now every time somebody hits a home run, they pass the key along and it’s been great. They’ve had a lot of fun with this. It’s just something to loosen them up a bit, not think so much in there and they’re enjoying it so it’s been good. As long as they keep passing that key along, I’m happy.”
At the end of each game, the key is returned to Martinez so that he can hand it out the next day when he sees someone make a good play on offense. From there, it follows the homers.
The Nationals have a month until the trade deadline. Their recent run has vaulted them into the buyer conversation and there are shades of 2019 all over the place. Martinez's key has been passed around the entire time, though Schwarber has had a knack for keeping it to himself. If the Nationals' bats can stay hot, the key won't be going anywhere.