CLEVELAND -- Still lingering with a reporter at his office desk in the visiting manager’s office May 5, Davey Martinez made a low-key proclamation: “When we get healthy, we’re going to take off.”
He said it quietly, almost as if he was revealing a secret nobody would believe if said aloud. His team sunk to 14-19 that afternoon following a loss in Philadelphia with a never-anticipated lineup. Wilmer Difo hit second. Adam Eaton hit third. Andrew Stevenson, Carter Kieboom and Jake Noll -- all now in Triple-A Fresno with Difo -- were also on the field. Kurt Suzuki hit cleanup. Asked afterward about an order which included a 35-year-old catcher hitting fourth, Suzuki declined to give his thoughts. “I’m not going to say that on air.”
Yet, that wasn’t the swoon’s nadir. Just more than two weeks later, the Nationals boarded a train for Washington at Penn Station on May 23 following a 6-4 defeat in Queens to the New York Mets. The loss kicked them to a woeful 19-31. Martinez was fired by most of the public. Players were frustrated with all layers: Their personal play, the flood of injuries, even the fact they were taking a train home instead of a plane. A near-$200 million payroll operating under a World Series directive was crumbling. Martinez shifted from optimistic to defiant that day.
“I mean we're not out of it, that's for sure,” Martinez said firmly. “I can tell you that right now.”
Few believed him.
Sunday, he pulled a prank after entering the clubhouse postgame. Martinez sent out instructions for Max Scherzer’s eighth-inning celebration gaffe to be played on a loop in the Nationals clubhouse. Eight flat screens framing two structural posts showed a sleep-deprived Scherzer jogging onto the field to celebrate Adam Eaton’s eighth-inning run to put the Nationals ahead. He glanced around before realizing his error, returned to the dugout, then took the start of his prolific mocking from everyone who could speak.
“I’ve never seen that before,” Brian Dozier said with a smile.
Giddiness has supplanted this team’s gloom. The Nationals waltz into the All-Star break five games over .500 (47-42). They narrowly hold a wild-card spot. Division-leading Atlanta is just six games away and is on the schedule for seven of the 19 games to come in July. A full health-fueled, schedule-aided resurrection has occurred since New York, bringing the Nationals to a spot they expected to be in all along: competitive.
“Not our best in the beginning,” Scherzer said. “I think with a couple of additions that we've picked up, the clubhouse has kind of changed and we really got a good thing going. We started playing better baseball, really cleaned up our act all the way around. Everybody. Everybody had a hand in why we were making mistakes and just not playing winning baseball. Once we started clicking and getting going, [we eliminated] a lot of our mistakes and errors and made the other team beat us.
“If you can make the other team beat you, you’re doing something right and we know that the guys in this clubhouse are very talented. And [if] we can go out there and play our best baseball and play mistake-free baseball, we're a tough team and we can compete with anybody in this league.”
Simple was elusive. So much so, it confounded the coaching staff. They went over sets of signs with certain players multiple times, and those signs were already made simpler than the regular ones. The same thing said in February at West Palm Beach was reiterated in April and May, often to little avail.
But nothing supplanted the bullpen atop Washington’s list of early ailments. Martinez once sent five relievers into a game. All allowed a run to score. When a bomb is behind every door, it’s hard to find the proper escape hatch. Despite shaving two runs off its hide-your-eyes ERA, Washington still enters the All-Star break with the 29th-best (second-worst) bullpen ERA in the league. Only Baltimore trails it. Nothing, not even the lineup-ravaging injuries, stalled Washington more in the first 89 games.
And it’s not quite fixed. Relief help is sure to be atop Mike Rizzo’s list before the trade deadline. Closer Sean Doolittle is fatigued and on pace for 71 appearances, which would be a career high, despite a downtick in recent usage. Fernando Rodney’s decent stopgap work is unlikely to persist. Tanner Rainey and Wander Suero have fluctuated. The bullpen needs help. Still.
Regardless, the Nationals are in a surprising spot thanks to a 28-11 launch since collapsing in New York. Only two National League teams have more wins than the Nationals. Only four have a better run differential. All this despite a bullpen which pitched the fewest innings of any MLB relief group and allowed the 12th-most runs. All this despite 14 regulars finding their way to the injured list. All this despite the Trevor Rosenthal fail.
“Everything’s going really well right now,” Dozier said. “I love how we overcame a lot of things in the first month and a half. Things had to turn, and we made it happen.”
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