Nationals

Nationals

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.

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