Nationals

Months of separation produces different grind for Nats

Nationals
© Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

WASHINGTON -- The homestand opened Monday with another video montage of players’ family members. It was mostly kids.

They haven’t been in Nationals Park this year to wander about in the clubhouse or the field, or be hauled down to the family area by their moms for postgame visits.

That section of the stadium -- just outside the double-door clubhouse entrance -- has been used for extra space to provide proper social distancing. Every item, movement, delay, meal and shower is planned for. Separation is at the core of it all. And that has kept the kids out.

The Nationals are 16-25 following Tuesday night’s 5-3 win against Tampa Bay. They are more than two months into this experiment of being apart while being together. Their families are resigned to appear on a giant screen in center field and a smaller handheld one while the players are in the hotel or house.

Which leaves Davey Martinez managing in different ways. A team filled with injuries has caused him to hit Brock Holt third and Kurt Suzuki cleanup. He needs to keep finding space for the younger players while nudging along the Nationals’ distant postseason hopes. The game has become the easy part.

“I spent a lot of time individually with players,” Martinez said. “This year’s been difficult for a lot of players mentally, and getting prepared. Their routine has somewhat had to change.”

Even during the game he makes adjustments. Luis García trotted down to hug Martinez in the dugout the other day. Martinez told him he can’t do that this season. García insisted, popped a quick squeeze, then headed to the other end.

 

“For our club, we’re very close,” Martinez said. “We build on chemistry as you guys all know. It’s been different. The social distancing. Not being able to hang out in the clubhouse. Taking quick showers, leaving. It’s been hard for all of us. So I spend a lot of time just going around and individually talking to guys and just seeing how they’re doing. How they’re family’s doing. How they’re holding up. Everybody's pretty much gone. We have some guys who have never been away from their wives since they’ve been married. It’s tough. Kids. Young kids. So, everything’s tough.”

Martinez estimated 85-90 percent of the players are solo this season. He mentioned Howie Kendrick not seeing his sons, both of whom were consistent figures in the clubhouse and on the field last season. Chip Hale would play catch with them. Juan Soto would talk hitting with them in the batting cage. Kendrick would go about his business.

The duo told Kendrick earlier this year he can’t retire because they want to come back. He and the organization hold a mutual option to play in 2021.

Throughout this setup, team chemistry remains immeasurable, as it otherwise would. The Nationals claimed it provided a wave to ride from their doldrums to the title in 2019. This year, it’s a factor -- at least to them -- in their wayward play. What they built internally last year has been chopped up by space this year. It’s easily viewed as an excuse and dismissed by numbers.

But, what’s certain is the separation has had an influence on everyone involved. The road is loneliest, when meals are dropped at the door, followed by a knock and scamper down the hall. Martinez sits in his room with a solo cup of coffee, unwinds his breakfast from a cardboard box, and thinks about the snacks he now jams into his travel bag because he does not go out.

After counseling the players, he talks with his coaching staff or Mike Rizzo in order to have a mental health check of his own. He previously joked about one day reading books about psychology. Now, he anticipates doing so during the offseason.

And, he is taking time to clear his mind once rewatching the night’s game is done.

“I kind of go home after watching the replay of some of the games, and I go into meltdown mode, basically,” Martinez said. “Sit there and just vegetate on my couch. And I’m just trying to process everything. Know what I want to do for the next day, and who I need to talk to to get ready to go again.”

There was grousing at the start of the season about its length. Would 60 games provide a true postseason? Was 60 games even worth it?

 

A fair question now is if all of this could have been sustained for 80, 90, 100 games.

“It would have been difficult,” Martinez said. “It really would have. Being we got this far, it could have been done. But there’s a lot to it. There’s so much behind the scenes going on.”

The Nationals have a scheduled off-day Wednesday. It’s their first in 19 days. They are 16-25, need to win around 75 percent of their remaining 19 games to have a postseason shot and could use a break. Martinez said he plans to be a “couch potato” in search of three or four naps on Wednesday. Then, they are back for a four-game series with Atlanta, apart while together and hoping there’s enough in the next three weeks to make this trying season last longer.