Nationals

Quick Links

Nationals' World Series run anchors bond between Davey Martinez and Mike Rizzo

Nationals' World Series run anchors bond between Davey Martinez and Mike Rizzo

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Day after day, from 19-31 to the end, Davey Martinez and Mike Rizzo tried to maintain. Resolving small problems, like who was coming from Triple-A Fresno, to big problems, like Max Scherzer’s suddenly frozen neck in the middle of the World Series, is what their conversations so often focus on. And, there’s a lot of them.

They can’t -- and rarely do -- leave each other alone. Rizzo departed for his honeymoon after the season. Martinez stared at his phone, desperate to tap out a message, grappling in his head with the notion he should not bother Rizzo. When Martinez was in Bali in January -- a trip he bid on and won in 2018 at Ryan Zimmerman’s foundation event -- Rizzo was working through final free agent deals. Martinez scrambled to his phone each morning in a panic. Was it working? Did they make a move? What’s happening on the other side of the planet?

“We co-exist,” Rizzo told NBC Sports Washington. “To me, we work together, day in and day out. We probably talk during the season two or three times every day. There’s constant communication. The offseason, we’re either together or we’re in communication. If we’re not in some foreign land on a short vacation in the offseason, we’re talking. All the moves we make in the offseason, he’s involved in it.”

“It was hard for me,” Martinez told NBC Sports Washington. “He went to Cancun and you know what, I’m not going to call him. I’m going to let him be for a week at least. Every day was like... I got to at least text him, I got to call him. I can’t do it. Let him take his vacation. We were trying to sign all these free agents when I was in Bali and I was in a panic waking up making sure my phone worked. I said, ‘I got to talk to Mike. I’ve got to make sure I know what’s going on.’ But we have that kind of relationship with each other. I look forward to our conversations every day. He said it mildly -- two or three times. I’d say it’s maybe six to 10 times.”

They laughed while sitting under the emphatic Florida sun. Rizzo, 59, and Martinez, 55, are spending this spring surrounded by accomplishment and signage to remind everyone in case they forgot. At the entrance to the Nationals’ parking lot is a new, large 2019 World Series champions sign. There’s now one in the lobby, on the outside of the building in front and one out back, next to the sidewalk just outside the clubhouse. Even the wall clocks in the clubhouse have been changed from digital with red numbers to hand clocks with “2019 World Series champions” blurring the numbers and the basic functionality of the clock. It’s difficult to tell what time it is, but clear who won it all last year. That outcome has bonded Martinez and Rizzo forever.

LISTEN TO THE FULL INTERVIEW ON THE NATIONALS TALK PODCAST

***

Martinez’s introduction was pressure-filled. The press conference inside the Nationals’ clubhouse featured the Lerner family sitting in the front row, patriarch Ted observing intently while Rizzo explained winning often in the regular season and losing in the first round was not sufficient. Martinez had not managed before. Though he, and Rizzo, assured that Martinez’s prior experience was valuable enough to compensate. Skepticism followed the claims. This began a run of Martinez and Rizzo staying together.

“I knew he was a person that one, I could trust and two knew the game backward and forwards, and three had a history of success,” Rizzo said.

“For me, Mike hit it on the nose: it was trust,” Martinez said. “I came here knowing I could trust Mike, I could trust the organization. We were going to do things right. It’s a winning organization, but we’re going to take things further.”

The first year went poorly -- from the outside. Washington waded through pervasive injuries to finish 82-80. Twice that season, once in May and once in June, Martinez explained in 1-on-1 conversations the season could have gone off a cliff. That idea spread the organization. Instead of looking at his initial season as a failure because no postseason berth followed, the organization thought Martinez did well just to pull the team to 82 wins. The vibe helped preserve his job when the Nationals crashed the following May, arriving at 19-31 amid calls for Martinez’s removal and general questions of what was going on with this high-payroll, high-expectation team.

“Everybody talks about 19-31 to the world championship,” Rizzo said. “82-80 the year before might have been the greatest managing job he ever did because that thing could have gone off the rails really quickly and it could have been a horrendous season for us. With all the injuries that we had that year with some key personnel, I thought he handled it masterfully in 2018 to keep that ship afloat then in 2019 you just saw a more experienced person that had the hearts of the clubhouse. You not only didn’t see anybody pointing fingers or anonymous quotes or anything like that. You had players who had no skin in the game say positive things about the manager when they didn’t have to.”

One of Martinez’s pet phrases -- go 1-0 -- was born from the May mess. Rizzo came to his office each day, sat down and tried to decipher what would work best in the moment. They told the coaches to remain positive. They also closed ranks.

“We became one. We didn’t let anything on the outside deter what we were going to do,” Martinez said. “They were reading all this stuff and they would come into my office and they asked me, ‘Hey, are you going to get fired?’ I’d say, ‘No, I’m not.’ Let’s focus on just playing and going 1-0.” 

***

By the time the postseason arrived, the pair had survived reviving the season, but stood six outs from failing to make progress for the second consecutive season. Left-handed Josh Hader entered the game with a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the eighth. They had to beat him, his flowing locks and vivacious fastball. Nationals Park was quiet. Rizzo believed.

“I thought we had a chance to win that game,” Rizzo said. “I felt confident about it. I felt there was something special going on there. We had that five-game in four-day series against Philly when we were just in the Wild Card and from that time on I thought we had something special going. I thought we were going to win that game.”

Juan Soto’s single forced Martinez’s head down to his strategy and structure card. He knew the game was tied. So, he looked for what was next. Then he heard the crowd. When he looked up, the ball was behind Milwaukee right field Trent Grisham. Martinez began to run from the opposite end of the dugout -- where he stationed himself to break the night’s bad mojo -- toward the steps where he usually stood.

“Now I’m running back, C’mon! C’mon! I’m screaming and yelling to the player. Now I’m screaming so-and-so is in the game. At that particular moment, you almost try to refrain from being a fan. You’ve got to stay in that game, what’s your next step...we’ve got the lead, now here we go.”

A grind of a series was next with Los Angeles. A sweep of St. Louis followed. The World Series entered its midpoint, and Scherzer’s neck betrayed him.

“My heart sunk,” Martinez said of when he received the news.

“When you get a text from your head trainer Paul Lessard at 7 o’clock in the morning after a night game, that’s very rarely a good thing,” Rizzo said. “Right away, I go into strategy mode: what are we going to do...you kind of push that back in the background and how are we going to win this game without Max Scherzer.

“[Martinez] had a phone call to make to Joe Ross and the group to prepare him mentally for pitching the biggest game of his life. It was as smooth transition as you’re going to get when you lose Max Scherzer at 7 o’clock in the morning on a World Series game.”

Scherzer eventually pitched. The Nationals won four road games. When the series was over, after Daniel Hudson threw a slider and hurled his glove, Martinez and Rizzo found each other in the on-field chaos.

“Obviously big smiles, huge hugs,” Martinez said.

“There was some emotion,” Rizzo said. “We were emotional, yeah.”

“One it was an overwhelming feeling, an exciting feeling,” Martinez said. “But also, two, I was like, phew, we did it. We did it.”

Rizzo called his father, Phil, who was in Chicago. Both spent their lifetime in baseball.

“He was as emotional as I’ve heard him,” Rizzo said.

Martinez was being choked by his kids after they jumped on him. His girlfriend, Tara, gave him a hug, and he tried to keep his emotions in check. Martinez also took a moment to himself.

“I can remember strike three, the whole Hudson hands up in the air, he fired the glove at 150 mph and all I wanted to do -- I sat down on the chair, I just wanted to take it all in.”

***

Reminiscing has come to a close in West Palm Beach. Rizzo is done talking about 2019 publicly. Martinez has a new catch phrase, “Not repeat, but compete.”

Going forward, they’re intertwined no matter what happens in 2020 or beyond. Rizzo is in the last year of his contract and contends he is unconcerned about a path to a new deal. The organization has an option year on Martinez’s contract. Both being in limbo would be strange elsewhere. It’s standard here.

They will always have 2019. The banners will not come down, history will not exclude them, they will not retire with the bitterness of never getting there. It can not be extracted.

“I haven’t thought about the legacy, if you will,” Rizzo said. “I have thought about it’s something they can never take from us. We’re the 2019 world champions and it will be there forever. What [Martinez] has taught me is enjoy the wins. Enjoy the wins more so than lament the losses.”

That wasn’t happening?

“No, it was not,” Rizzo said. “We’d win a grinder game and I’m like, who's pitching tomorrow, what do we got tomorrow, you’d lose a game and you’d wear it for 24 hours until the start of the next game and that was a big part of our success in ‘19 and will be in ‘20 again, he embraced celebrate the win, man, and we celebrated the win as good as I’ve ever seen it. Each and every win, even if it was in June or October.”

A memo was distributed in January telling everyone to be ready for spring training. Martinez began harping on the idea in public back at the Winter Meetings in December. Internally, he and Rizzo discussed a strategy for going forward. Much of it entails replication.

“For me, it’s about repeating the process and that’s what it really is,” Martinez said. “What got us to that final game and winning it. Who are we? Let’s build off that. Forgot about the whole persona of being world champions because come March 26 we’re all 0-0 right now. But, how did we get where we’re at and build off of that.”

“I agree, same thing,” Rizzo said. “I think we have to keep them hungry. I think we have to keep that chip on our shoulder. I think what was important to us that helped us win the World Series and will help us compete for another one this year is that this is a ‘we’ group, it’s not a ‘me’ group.”

More office conversations are pending. Martinez and Rizzo are trying to fend off another bad start. They know complacency is among the enemies this season for a team which was being fitted for rings during the second week in West Palm Beach. Together, they figure they can do it.

Click here to download the MyTeams App by NBC Sports. Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream Capitals and Wizards games easily from your device.

MORE NATIONALS NEWS:

Quick Links

Washington Nationals mailbag: baseball cards, nuances of the game and Luis Garcia

Washington Nationals mailbag: baseball cards, nuances of the game and Luis Garcia

It’s time for another round of the Nationals mailbag. Interesting questions this week as we all wait to see if baseball will begin this season. If you have a question for a future mailbag, send it to todd.dybas@nbcuni.com or fill out the form here.

Q: If the podcast crew were to recreate the back of a baseball card to be the most informative to fans, would you keep it the same or add /take away some stats?
Yitz Taragin

I feverishly collected baseball cards as a kid. At one point, I had every Harmon Killebrew card from his 22-year career. My parents bought me his then-expensive rookie card one year for Christmas. Why him? I still don’t know. But, there was something magical about the cards and the back of them.

They have changed over the years, much like baseball’s statistical priorities. Slugging percentage and OPS is on the back of Topps 2020 Series 1 cards. Card manufacturers, like reporters, have to balance the information they use because their audience’s statistical knowledge remains broad. Not everyone is staring at Fangraphs eight hours a day.

But, I would put games, at-bats, home runs, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS-plus, WAR and WRC+ on the card. At times, it seems we overthink the aforementioned balance between those who would instantly know those acronyms and those who do not. The latter group may be prompted to learn about them if they were displayed instead of sheltered.

Oh, and of course add a stale stick of gum.


Q: Hi Todd — thanks for the great Nationals coverage — I’m sure the lack of baseball is killing you ten times more than it is me, and I’m suffering.

I know it’s become a common refrain that the Nats did baseball a huge favor by pulling out game 7 and preventing the third World Series in a row from having a cloud over it, and I agree. But they also did Joe Torre and MLB a pretty big solid by pulling out game 6, and ensuring that the bizarre call against Trea Turner for running “out of the base path” on the way to first didn’t play a factor in the game/series outcome. Despite the attempts by Torre to provide clarity, there is a clear ambiguity in the rules, and even more so a clear departure from common sense regarding the call against Turner. A right-handed batter should obviously have every right to take the most direct route to first. If that had been a Series-deciding play there would have been an uproar second only to the trash can controversy.

I haven’t seen this addressed since the Series, and I’m really curious — were there ever any discussions at MLB about clarifying the rules regarding the legal path of runners to first base?
Jason Mahler

Hey, Jason. Thanks for reading. And, yes, we’re all desperate for baseball to come back once everyone is safe.

There has been limited discussion about this. Turner remains baffled by what he should have done. Here’s what he told us when we sat down for the podcast at Nationals Winterfest (which now seems a generation ago) and was asked if it was the wrong call:

“Wrong or right, I don’t know. But, I don’t know what else I was supposed to do. I don’t feel like I veered off into fair territory. I said many times that the batter's box is in fair territory, at least half of it, then the base is also in fair territory. So, if you’re going to run in a straight line, which everybody does, you’re going to be a little bit in fair territory. Me personally, I felt like the pitcher got rewarded for a bad throw. Usually when you make a mistake, it goes against you. Kind of went in their favor. So, it is what it is. We won. I don’t care. If we lost, I’d still be hurt about it.”

And, you’re right to point out the ambiguity in the rule. Here it is:

Rule 5.09(a )(11) Comment (Rule 6.05(k ) Comment): The lines marking the three-foot lane are a part of that lane and a batter-runner is required to have both feet within the three-footlane or on the lines marking the lane. The batter-runner is per-mitted to exit the three-foot lane by means of a step, stride,reach or slide in the immediate vicinity of first base for the sole purpose of touching first base.

So, as this pertains to Turner, there is judgment: He was on the fair side of the lane. But, he was also right in front of the base. And, most crucial in my view, his point about the throw is correct. A good throw keeps Yuri Gurriel’s glove in an expected place and clear of Turner. So, obviously there would have been no issue there. So why was Turner penalized for running into a space he, by rule, seemingly has a right to?

It’s a tough call in the moment. It’s also tough to alter the language in the rule. I suppose they could add a caveat about responsibility for the flight path of the ball. Maybe that would help.

CLICK HERE TO SUBSCRIBE TO THE NATIONALS TALK PODCAST

Q. What's your advice for watching baseball more intelligently? Aside from listening to the Nats Talk podcast, because I already do that. :) I don't need "Baseball for Dummies", but maybe, like, "Baseball Watching 201". What should I be looking out for? What strategic things could I be noticing? In particular, how can I be a smarter observer of pitching and pitching strategy?

Thanks, and go Nats!
Katie Newmark

Hey, Katie. Thanks for listening to us dummies on the podcast.

This question immediately makes me think about the times I hear, “There’s nothing going on.” Whenever someone tells me that, I politely tell them they are not looking at the right things, so they don’t realize how much is in fact going on.

Take outfield positioning. Players are armed with cards, but a good center fielder is also moving himself with knowledge developed in-game. For instance, a step or two in either direction can happen because Stephen Strasburg is throwing more changeups than curveballs. And, this particular batter’s swing path typically drives off-speed pitches in a certain direction. Plus, the wind, etc. All this in the end can be a difference between an out and a double.

To the pitchers: They receive the same heat maps we can access on the Internet. So, their path to exploiting a certain spot against hitter X with their particular repertoire is always compelling.

For instance, Freddie Freeman hit .154 against pitches up, in and still a strike last season. But, middle in and down and in? Freeman hit .308 and .419, respectively. Further in, off the plate, Freeman also had trouble (if he swung). Which means Max Scherzer’s cutter would be a crucial pitch for him against Freeman, but only if it’s up or in and off the plate. So, Scherzer has to hit one of three places, and, if he is throwing middle or lower in, he has to cross the danger zones to get there. This is what he is referring to when he talks about “driving” his cutter in. Three inches to the right, Freeman smashes it. Three inches in, it’s a ground out to the short side of the field. And, Freeman knows Scherzer knows Freeman knows this is the case. Freeman also knows Scherzer throws a truckload of strikes. Here’s what he said last year at the All-Star Game:

“If he throws a ball to you, you know he’s setting you up for something else,” Freeman said. “That’s the hardest thing.”

Think about that conceptually: Freeman believes if Scherzer throws him a ball, he is almost exclusively messing with him. But, maybe he just missed his spot for once. Or did he?

This is the epic cat-and-mouse game which comes with repeated, high-end opponents. In this case, Freeman has a hard time. He’s faced Scherzer 45 times and has a .693 OPS. However, he’s faced Strasburg 66 times and has a 1.050 OPS. During, and after, a series, you can see how each pitches to Freeman. Often back-to-back. A guess, without going pitch by pitch, is this could be caused by Strasburg’s two primary off-speed pitches feeding into Freeman’s hot zones -- down or middle and in. He, like Scherzer, could chase the up-and-in hole with a fastball. But without a specific pitch to drive hard under Freeman’s hands, Strasburg has a more difficult time. That’s a guess, and probably just birthed a future blog post.

One other anecdote: The first time Scherzer faced new teammate Starlin Castro this spring during live batting practice, he would not throw him a curveball. Why? Castro hit a 2-2 curveball into the left field stands in the fourth inning, July 7, 2018. It’s his only home run against Scherzer, which Scherzer of course remembers.

So, watch stuff like that. Patterns, location, repeat opponents. And, the reverse is true, too. All those strikes Scherzer throws can cause the hitters to “ambush” him suddenly in the third inning or so, when they start swinging at the first pitch. How does he adjust to that?

I could go on forever here. But, those are some ideas. Hope it helps.


Q: Question about Garcia. Read a nice article about him going over his swing with Soto in spring training. He was also hitting very well to start the spring. What kind of prospect does he project out to be, especially if he improves his bat like he has thus far?
Brandon Drury

Hey, Brandon.

The Nationals are intrigued by Luis Garcia. They like his positional versatility, expect him to get bigger (he’s a 6-foot-2, 190-pound, 19-year-old) and think he has good work habits.

He was in major-league camp for a spell last spring and said he wants to be the next Juan Soto. That doesn’t mean hit at the same level. He was more talking about reaching the major leagues rapidly and staying. As you point out, he was having an excellent offensive spring (1.003 OPS). The good spring came after Garcia spent most of last season improving at the plate while playing for Double-A Harrisburg. He finished August with a .758 OPS, hit three home runs and doubled nine times. That kind of ascension suggests more power could be lurking.

However, if he wants to be like Soto, his plate discipline needs to rise significantly. Garcia struck out 86 times and walked 17 last year. He needs to fix that.

Stay connected to the Capitals and Wizards with the MyTeams app. Click here to download for comprehensive coverage of your teams.

MORE NATIONALS NEWS:

Quick Links

Ryan Zimmerman can't wait for 'most unique World Series celebration of all-time'

Ryan Zimmerman can't wait for 'most unique World Series celebration of all-time'

April 2 was supposed to be a historic day in Nationals history.

It was scheduled as their home opener against the Mets and the day they would raise their first World Series championship banner. But with coronavirus delaying the start to the season, Nats fans, players and personnel will have to wait a little longer. 

No player has had to wait for a World Series title in DC longer than Ryan Zimmerman, and he didn't hide his disappointment in an interview with 106.7 The Fan Thursday

"The bummer is today," Zimmerman said. "Today was going to be the day we all thought would be the one day where we actually look back on [the World Series].

"It's a beautiful day outside and it’s tough to look outside and think of what could’ve been," he said. 

Looking on the bright side, it's not like the wait will diminish anyone's excitement. Zimmerman also made an interesting point. The fact that the Nationals had an unforgettable and unprecedented run to a World Series title, it makes a little sense the celebration would be delayed for unforgettable and unprecedented reasons. 

"It'll be the most unique World Series celebration of all-time," he said. "A lot of things will not be forgotten about our 2019 season. The way we won it, the comebacks in the playoffs and it's only fitting that it won't be forgotten how long it took us to celebrate it."

We still don't know exactly when baseball will begin again, but when it does Nats fans will have plenty more to celebrate than just a World Series banner going up. 

Stay connected to the Capitals and Wizards with the MyTeams app. Click here to download for comprehensive coverage of your teams.

MORE NATIONALS NEWS: