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Bryce Harper says the Nats 'finally have an All-Star staff'

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Bryce Harper says the Nats 'finally have an All-Star staff'

Of all the tasks on the lengthy to-do list for new Nationals manager Dusty Baker, fostering healthy relationships with his star players is likely near the top. Of course, this isn't new territory for the veteran skipper, who has been around elite talents like Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Joey Votto in his accomplished managerial career. 

So it comes as no surprise that the relationship between Baker and his latest phenom, Bryce Harper, will probably be scrutinized throughout most of the 66-year-old's tenure in Washington -- especially compared to that of his predecessor, Matt Williams. 

Harper, who's currently making the media rounds as he's up for a number of year-end honors, was asked Monday night on MLB Network about his new manager as well as pitching coach Mike Maddox and first-base coach Davey Lopes. 

“I think you see that smile on my face,” Harper said after accepting the NL Outstanding Player award. “I’m definitely very excited to have him. Being able to play for a guy like Dusty, somebody that’s been around the game for a long, long time … and being able to do the things with him and learn from him. Also learning from a guy in Davey Lopes, one of the best first base coaches in the game and one of the best baserunning coaches in the game also. I’m very excited for that. And also Mike Maddux. Being able to pick his brain about pitchers and seeing the tendencies that other pitchers throw with. I’m very excited to have the team that we do. We finally have an All-Star staff, and it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Obviously, that last line about "finally having an All-Star staff" might raise a few eyebrows. Was that a dig at his former manager? Or was it simply praising the new coaching staff?

Harper's been known to speak his mind in the past, but has rarely criticized Williams in public, even staunchly defending him during a September in which rumblings of clubhouse discord grew louder and louder. 

On the flip side, Baker's known strength as a manger is his ability to win over a locker room with his infectious personality. With that in mind, it should be fascinating to watch the dynamic between he and Harper develop in 2016 and beyond.  

MORE NATS: Report: Williams returns to D'backs as 3B coach

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Nationals GM Mike Rizzo: It's too early to make changes - at manager or otherwise

Nationals GM Mike Rizzo: It's too early to make changes - at manager or otherwise

WASHINGTON -- Max Scherzer and Mike Rizzo met at the upper corner of the dugout railing Friday around 2 p.m. Scherzer, coming in from a bullpen session, leaned against the padded bar. Rizzo did most of the talking, at times using both hands and gesturing toward different parts of the field.

Scherzer walked into the dugout following the five-minute conversation with Rizzo. Turns out, everyone has questions and is searching for answers during this failing Nationals season.

Not long after the general manager and his Hall-of-Fame-bound starter finished their conversation, manager Davey Martinez came up the dugout steps to watch Anibal Sanchez throw a simulated game. Martinez’s emergence confirmed he was still in charge Friday. Rizzo’s words two hours later further entrenched that idea -- for now.

“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.”

In a planned group session with reporters, Rizzo harped on a trio of points: One was the stage of the season, a second was the need to play cleaner baseball, the third centered on his hunt for bullpen help.

To the first, it’s a semantics dance. Washington, 19-31 coming into Friday following stomach-churning losses to a Mets team in disarray when the Nationals arrived at Citi Field last Sunday, are 30.9 percent into the season. Forty games is historically used as a marker for determining a team’s capabilities. The Nationals are beyond that point and in a deep corner. It’s no longer early because of the broad hole the Nationals have dug.

To the second, the call for cleaner baseball began last offseason. That it’s still being made May 24 is perhaps the most explanatory aspect of how the Nationals find themselves just 1.5 games in front of the trying-to-lose Marlins. Despite persistent harping on the concept, near-daily gaffes continue on the field. The Nationals often do early work, have extra meetings and try to drill down specific points. But, the attempts are betrayed time and again during the actual games, whether it’s baserunning, fielding or math-countering pitch selection.

To the last, Rizzo said he is in pursuit of bullpen fixes from any location: trade, waiver wire, wherever. He also expects those on the roster to perform better. This idea is akin to the demand for cleaner baseball, if with a shorter shelf life. The bullpen roared into the bottom of the league the second day of the season when it allowed seven runs across the eighth and ninth innings. It’s been atrocious since. Of the five relievers used that day, all five remain in the organization. Only Trevor Rosenthal is not on the active 25-man roster.

The three pillars of Rizzo’s discussion -- the calendar, bad baseball and tragic bullpen -- have conspired to put Martinez’s future at risk. He was more stern and explanatory in Friday’s pregame press conference before his boss delivered a proportional backing. Rizzo did not explicitly say Martinez will remain manager. He also did not say he would not. Instead, the generalist approach reigned.

“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.”

The question is how many of those years will include Martinez if this one continues on the same path.

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Team meetings like the one the Nationals had this week are no guarantee of a turnaround – but it can happen

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Team meetings like the one the Nationals had this week are no guarantee of a turnaround – but it can happen

Sometimes the doors shut on the outside world and struggling teams find clarity inside the sanctuary of a locker room. Sometimes they do not. 

The Nationals experienced the downside of a players’ only meeting this week when a clear-the-air session on Wednesday at Citi Field in New York was followed by two horrifying losses to the NL East rival Mets.

Now 12 games under .500, the season slipping away, their manager facing daily questions about his job security, the hardest part is here: Where do the Nationals go after a team meeting doesn’t solve the problem? 

Washington doesn’t need to go too far back into the history books to see that team meetings are often just exercises in frustration, They held one after a 3-0 loss to the Boston Red Sox last July 4. It capped a 9-20 stretch where they were shut out eight times in 34 days. 

You know what happened next. The Nationals drifted through an 82-80 season and failed to reach any of their preseason goals. A team 10 games over .500 and tied for first place in the NL East on May 31 was a game under .500 (42-43), seven games out and never got closer than five again. 

Of course, if there were no problems there would be no meetings. But sometimes players can root out issues by shutting out everyone, including the coaches. The Capitals did it each of the past two seasons. 

It’s easy to forget in the wake of winning the Stanley Cup in 2018 and a fourth straight Metropolitan Division title in 2019 that the Capitals had plenty of problems to work through. Former coach Barry Trotz blistered his team after a 6-2 loss at Colorado on Nov. 16, 2017 and left his players to sort things out. Washington was floundering at 10-9-1. 

The message got through. They won 12 of their next 15 games and finished the rest of the season 39-17-6. They went on to win the Cup – though there were a few more bumps in the road and a defensive overhaul following another team meeting in March. 

This year an embarrassing 8-5 loss at Chicago left the Capitals in third place in the Metro at 27-16-5. Maybe that doesn’t seem too bad, but they were in the midst of what would become a seven-game losing streak. They were teetering. Again the brutally honest talk after the loss to the Blackhawks eventually helped turn the tide.

“At the end of the day we’re pretty close, we’re a team. This group isn’t guys yelling,” Capitals forward Tom Wilson said after that Jan. 22 game. “We’re close, we know how we need to play. We just needed to address it, we needed to talk it out a little bit, get on the same page.

 But it took two more losses – one a brutal 7-6 overtime defeat at home to San Jose where they coughed up a two-goal lead twice, gave up the game-tying goal with one second to go and lost in overtime. Even productive team meetings rarely have linear results. 

 But they can also make things worse. The Wizards had a team meeting in January 2018 and soon after got destroyed by Charlotte 133-109. They rallied and beat Detroit two days later and their record was 26-20. 

But the fruitless meeting couldn’t solve Washington’s underlying issues. And while injuries played a factor, the Wizards only made the playoffs as the No. 8 seed and lost to Toronto in the first round in six games. 

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