Max Scherzer came in from his bullpen session and struck up a conversation with Mike Rizzo.
Scherzer leaned against a padded rail while talking to the team’s lead decision-maker. It was cool and cloudy, and the Nationals were 19-31 after an abominable four-game sweep in New York. They made errors; lost on a walk-off infield single; participated in childish disputes; watched the bullpen crash multiple times. Dumpster fires pointed at the situation and thought, “Well, at least we’re not them.”
When Scherzer and Rizzo finished talking Friday, May 24, 2019, the star pitcher descended the dugouts steps and went up the tunnel. Not long after, a person everyone was waiting to see emerged. Davey Martinez came up to watch Aníbal Sánchez throw a simulated game. His presence alone was news.
Like Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen five days prior, Rizzo now had to defend why the organization was retaining its manager. Usually, managerial change in Washington occurs during the offseason -- and often. Robinson, Acta, Riggleman, Johnson, Williams, Baker and those for brief stints in between. The franchise’s legacy to that point -- wobbling 10 games out of first place -- was wrapped around star top picks, soul-ripping postseason failure, and spinning managers in and out as if they were meaningless parts.
When he met with reporters hours after talking to Scherzer and crossing paths with Martinez, Rizzo took a stand in two regards. First, Scherzer, Anthony Rendon, Sean Doolittle and other major, tradable assets were not leaving. Second, neither was Martinez.
“We're not making any decisions with a third of the season gone,” Rizzo said when asked his confidence level with Martinez as manager. “We've got a lot of season left. Davey's not happy with what's going on, nobody's happy with what's going on, the fanbase, ownership and myself. Things got to get better. We've got to play better baseball.”
Miami was only 1 ½ games behind Washington at that point. Most local literature and on-air commentary had dismissed Martinez, even if Rizzo had not. In the moment, Rizzo did not give flat assurance about Martinez’s future. The Nationals limped -- literally -- to barely above .500 in his first season. They were one of the league’s worst teams by this point in 2019 and his managerial record was well below .500. Injuries were an enormous factor in his path. But, expectations and cost remained high, so time for allowing the pragmatic approach was running out.
“Well certainly you have to have a plan in place for all contingencies,” Rizzo said. “And like I said, we're fairly spoiled here. We've had winning records, we've been in first place for a lot of the last seven years. There's only three teams in all of baseball, I think, that have played .500 baseball over the last seven years. So we're certainly cognizant of the calendar and where we're at in the standings, and we always have a one-, three-, and five-year plan in our minds, and that'll continue.”
That night, a rally against Miami finally delivered a win. The game carried many of the bad baseball tenets flooding the Nationals’ season to that point. They played poor defense. The bullpen gave up runs. It was ugly.
Yet, they won using what was becoming another common trait: end-of-game comebacks.
So, when Martinez walked into the postgame press conference, sat down and exhaled, a reporter suggested to him, “a win is a win, is a win.” He immediately perked up.
“Exactly,” Martinez said, before repeating the phrase.
His most tenuous day of the season was over when he walked out. It was a long one. Martinez went home, rewatched the game, came back Saturday. They won again. Another win on Sunday. The three consecutive victories was the team’s longest winning streak to that point. They may have been the three most important regular-season wins, too. Martinez kept his job. The core players stayed at their lockers. Rizzo kept on hunting for solutions. By Halloween, they were able to look back with a smile.
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