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Second time's a charm for Nats

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Second time's a charm for Nats

NEW YORK -- The major-league schedule is a quirky beast. The Nationals wrapped up their season series with the Reds on Mother's Day, yet they won't face the Cardinals for the first time until Labor Day weekend.

Then there are the Mets, who are about to conclude a nine-day stretch in which they play the Nationals six times. Which produced Tuesday night's matchup between Gio Gonzalez and R.A. Dickey, a showdown of All-Star hurlers that would have been noteworthy if not for the fact the two had just squared off five days earlier in Washington.

That encounter was won convincingly by the Mets, with Gonzalez putting forth his worst start of the season and the Nationals struggled to lump hits in bunches against Dickey.

Five days later, the Nationals turned the tables. They racked up five consecutive hits off Dickey in the top of the seventh, highlighted by Adam LaRoche's second-deck homer. And Gonzalez authored perhaps his best start of the year, surrendering one unearned run and only two hits over seven brilliant innings to atone for his previous outing and lead the Nationals to a 5-2 victory.

"He was out there to prove something," manager Davey Johnson said.

Gonzalez wasn't alone. Perhaps the entire dugout was motivated to put together a performance like this against the NL's most-successful pitcher this season.

The end result was a thoroughly satisfying victory, the Nationals' fourth straight and one that brought their record to a season-high 18 games over .500. Even if they went 33-33 the rest of the way, they'd still wind up with 90 wins.

"I think we're clicking pretty good right now," LaRoche said.

They are clicking because they're getting contributions from every aspect of the roster. Baseball's best rotation continues to overwhelm opposing lineups, with the last five starters all going at least six innings while allowing two earned runs or fewer. A resurgent lineup has belted out eight homers over the last six games. And a deep and talented bullpen has (with one minor exception during Friday night's debacle against the Braves) shut the door on the opposition.

The Nationals won Tuesday night's game thanks primarily to Gonzalez's pitching excellence and the late offensive surge against Dickey. Each was impressive in its own right.

Gonzalez admitted he carried some extra motivation into this start after lasting only 3 13 innings Thursday against the same lineup.

"I wanted to redeem myself from my last start, give our team a chance to go out there and try to compete," he said.

The left-hander was able to do that by aggressively attacking the strike zone and not wasting any pitches. He needed only six pitches to induce three groundball outs in the bottom of the first, then retired 11 batters in a row from the third through the sixth innings.

"Just from what we saw last time and before the game, we usually talk about a game plan, and we talked about being more aggressive in the zone and attacking the hitters," catcher Jesus Flores said.

By the time he escaped a mini-jam in the seventh, Gonzalez's pitch count sat at a mere 87. Johnson said he was prepared to let him take the mound for the eighth, but when the opportunity to pinch-hit for his starter and attempt to tack on some insurance runs presented itself, the manager decided to take it.

"He can go high, up to 120 pitches as far as I'm concerned," Johnson said. "But the guys were fresh that I wanted to bring into that ballgame, and I thought we could ice it down, and we did."

By that point, the Nationals had taken a 5-1 lead, thanks to a sudden barrage of hits off Dickey. They had scored their first run in the fourth on doubles by Ryan Zimmerman and Danny Espinosa (who hit right-handed against the knuckleballer). But otherwise they had been stymied once again by the 13-game winner who has mastered control of the knuckler like perhaps no one who has ever thrown the pitch.

"It seems like he never throws a bad one up there that doesn't do anything," LaRoche said. "He'll sneak some fastballs in there, but for the most part when he throws that ball, it's moving. You just hope when you swing, your bat's in the right spot."

Seeking any advantage he could get to make that happen, LaRoche found himself using Roger Bernadina's bat for this game, which is two ounces lighter than his usual lumber. The theory, devised by injured teammate Ian Desmond: A lighter bat should allow for better control and more ability to adjust as the knuckleball is approaching the plate.

It didn't seem to make any difference during LaRoche's first two plate appearances; he walked in the second, then grounded out in the fourth. But then he connected on a 79 mph knuckleball down in the zone with two outs in the seventh, and sent it soaring into the second deck down the right-field line.

It was LaRoche's first hit in nine plate appearances against Dickey this season, only his third in 19 career head-to-head encounters.

Must've been the bat.

"Whether it's true or not," LaRoche said, "it worked once."

A conversation Rick Eckstein had with several batters before the seventh inning might have helped as well. The hitting coach noted too many of his hitters were letting Dickey's knuckleball get too deep in the strike zone before swinging. Go after it out in front of the plate, Eckstein suggested, and catch it before it breaks.

Whatever the reason, the heart of the Nationals lineup sprung to life in that inning. LaRoche's two-run blast came after Michael Morse singled. Espinosa, Bernadina and Flores all followed with their own singles, the last one bringing home two more insurance runs and putting the Nats in position to erase the bad memories of last week's loss to Dickey with a resounding victory this time around.

"What a great game and a great comeback," Johnson said. "I loved seeing it."

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2018 Nationals Position Review: The Nats have a clear need at catcher​​​​​​​

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2018 Nationals Position Review: The Nats have a clear need at catcher​​​​​​​

One of the Nationals' biggest offseason needs is clearly at the catcher position, where they have no obvious starter under contract and no top prospect waiting in the wings.

Matt Wieters, Spencer Kieboom and Pedro Severino all saw time in the starting lineup in 2018, but all three failed to contribute in anything more than a few flashes. Severino started strong but was ineffective at the plate after the spring ended. Wieters finished the season strong but missed two months with an injury. Kieboom was good but never great.

Before we look ahead at the future of the position and whether the Nats will address their need with a trade or through free agency, let's look back at the 2018 season that was for Nationals backstops.

2018 Nationals Position Review: Catchers

Matt Wieters

Age: 32
2018 salary: $10.5 million
2018 stats: .251/.315/.410, 76 G, 271 PA, 235 AB, 56 H, 24 R, 8 HR, 30 RBI, 8 2B, 0 3B, 30 BB, 45 SO, 86 OPS+, bWAR 0.6

Wieters was always a short-term fix for the Nationals catcher, but this year he didn't exactly provide the production needed to even serve that purpose. His numbers were a bit better than 2017, his first year in Washington, but Wieters battled injuries, missing two months from mid-May to mid-July with a hamstring strain. 

To Wieters' credit, he finished the season strong. From July 23 to his final game on Sept. 29, Wieters carried a .353 on-base percentage with a .763 OPS. His defense was a mixed bag, but he did rank 10th in MLB in caught stealing percentage (min. 40 GP).

Wieters is expected to be gone this winter and where he goes next will be interesting. He can probably still get another starting catcher job, but not for a good team. Meanwhile, the Nats will go out hoping to find someone much better and younger than Wieters to move forward with.

Spencer Kieboom

Age: 27
2018 salary: Pre-Arb Eligible
2018 stats: .232/.322/.320, 52 G, 143 PA, 125 AB, 29 H, 16 R, 2 HR, 13 RBI, 5 2B, 0 3B, 16 BB, 28 SO, 71 OPS+, bWAR 0.4

Kieboom got the call in May when Wieters went down and got his first extended stint in the majors. He made his debut in 2016, but had just one plate appearance before going back down and then staying in the minors for all of 2017.

Kieboom did a serviceable job considering the circumstances. His caught stealing percentage was fourth in the majors. And offensively, he had some moments. He had seven multi-hit games and had a few stretches where he drew walks in bunches. 

The question for Kieboom is whether he did enough to keep a roster spot next season. He's under team control until 2024, but clearly, the team will seek upgrades at his position. 

Pedro Severino

Age: 25
2018 salary: Pre-Arb Eligible
2018 stats: .168/.254/.247, 70 G, 213 PA, 190 AB, 32 H, 14 R, 2 HR, 15 RBI, 9 2B, 0 3B, 1 SB, 18 BB, 47 SO, 34 OPS+, bWAR -1.1

Severino had played for the Nats in brief stints each of the past three seasons, but like Kieboom he got his first real run in the major leagues this season. He began the year as the backup catcher but was optioned down when Wieters returned in July because Kieboom essentially took his job. Severino then returned in September when rosters expanded.

Severino continued to show flashes this season with his defense and speed on the basepaths relative to his position. But he just didn't get it done at the plate. He couldn't hit for average or power and he doesn't get on-base consistently enough.

Since Kieboom passed him on the depth chart, and given the Nats are likely to add talent at catcher, it's unlikely Severino will enter next season as anything more than Triple-A depth.

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What went right in Dave Martinez’s first season with the Nationals?

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What went right in Dave Martinez’s first season with the Nationals?

After spending a decade as a Major League bench coach and managerial interviews with seven other ballclubs over the course of six years, Dave Martinez was hired to manage the Washington Nationals in 2018. The team had averaged 93 wins over the previous four years, winning 95-plus in three of the four seasons, but in 2018 they won just 82, barely reaching an above-.500 record in the first season under Martinez’s tutelage.

Based on the managerial turnover, Martinez drew the ire of many Nats fans. After all, if the Nats were going to move on from the proven success of Dusty Baker, shouldn’t the next manager be even better?

While the frustration surrounding a disappointing season was entirely understandable, Martinez shouldn’t be given as much of the blame as he has. We’ll have a piece coming later in the offseason about some of the things that went wrong in his debut season, so for the folks out there who want to point out his flaws, don’t worry. Your time will come, and we’re not saying he should be absolved of all blame this year.

This post, however, will highlight some of the successes Martinez had this season, and why he may very well still have a bright future ahead of him in Washington.

There are a few key reasons why I maintained all season long that Dusty Baker wouldn’t have had much more success than Martinez in 2018. First off, the litany of injuries the Nats dealt with were pretty astounding, and while they didn’t have any one major obvious injury, the sheer volume added up to cost the team a lot of games from proven veterans.

Those injuries led to probably the single biggest bright spot from the 2018 season: the emergence of 19-year old wunderkind Juan Soto.

It’s difficult to evaluate what Martinez’s patterns will be going forward in regards to young players vs proven veterans, but Dusty Baker had a well-earned reputation for favoring high-floor vets over high-ceiling rookies. It’s a fine philosophy to have, but it likely would have kept Soto in the minor leagues in 2018, robbing Nats fans of maybe the most entertaining part of their summer.

Martinez showed trust in Soto early, recognizing his preternatural ability to get on base and show in-game power, and Soto ended up with the 4th-highest Wins Above Replacement on the teams, to go along with the highest wRC+. Allowing Soto to grow and prove himself in high-pressure situations was maybe Martinez’s shrewdest move all season long. 

Now, instead of another highly-rated prospect who may or may not pan out, the Nats find themselves in the enviable position of being able to let Bryce Harper walk if he asks for too much money while knowing they have a capable replacement already on the roster. After one of the single greatest teenage seasons for a hitter in Major League history, the Nats now have one of the most valuable assets in the game in Soto.

Obviously, most of the credit for Soto’s incredible rookie season goes to Soto himself, but it’s partially thanks to Martinez as well that he got the opportunity.

The actual, strategic role of a baseball manager is relatively limited. Yes, setting the lineup each day matters to a degree, and National League managers of course have more moves to worry about over the course of the game. Still, in a game without the X’s and O’s of football, basketball, and hockey, the most obvious strategy managers employ is in bullpen manipulation.

The Nats had a bounceback season with their bullpen in 2018, and Martinez certainly played a role in that. It wasn’t the elite bullpen season of years past, but as a unit the bullpen shave nearly half a run off their collective ERA compared to 2017, and they moved up from 23rd in baseball to 15th.

In this current era of bullpening and shortened starts, a strong bullpen has literally never been more important, and at the very least, Martinez proved himself capable of running one. In fact, given how the team’s remarkable injury misfortune extended to Sean Doolittle and the bullpen as well, it makes the manager’s performance even more impressive.

Individually, you can see the success as well, most prominently with the aforementioned Doolittle, who had a career year with a 1.60 ERA and a 36.8 strikeout rate. There were disappointments too, as there are in every bullpen every season, but it was still a good year for the group compared to last season.

Ultimately, the role of the manager in baseball is pretty overrated. Coaching schemes matter in football, X’s and O’s are critical in basketball and hockey, and substitutions matter in soccer. With baseball, the most important hat the manager wears is really a glorified babysitter.

I don’t use that phrase to diminish either the manager or the players he oversees, but rather to really emphasize that a manager’s most important job is handling personalities, not strategy decisions. This can be especially crucial on a team with as many big names and stars as the Nationals have on the roster.

It’s obviously not an area in which fans can truly evaluate a manager, since 98% of these actions take place behind closed doors. One way we can gauge how a manager is handling the team off the field is in their comments about him. A lot of times, a player’s positive thoughts on their manager falls into the “well, what else is he going to say?” category, but they can still be informative, especially when the praise is unprompted.

Even players no longer with the team, who have no obvious incentive to defend Dave Martinez, have gone out of their way to endorse him for the job.

The tweet is a quote from Daniel Murphy on the day he’d been traded away to the Cubs. Murphy, a player who has made it to the World Series under a heralded manager, in addition to playing for Baker and Martinez, knows what it takes to succeed in the role, and he clarified without being asked that Martinez would succeed.

In April, then-Nationals starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez and Martinez got into a dust-up over Gonzalez being pulled from a start when he felt he had more left in the tank. Tempers flared, and clearly neither side was happy with the other.

The next day, the two “had an animated conversation” at Gonzalez’ locker, according to The Washington Post. Afterwards, the pitcher had some thoughts on Martinez.

“It’s beautiful that our skipper speaks to us. It makes a huge difference knowing what’s going on. That was a situation that if people keep to themselves, it’d be a different story. Communication. That’s all we want. Once we have communication, everything is nice and calm and everything plays out the way it should play out.”

Having learned under the master Joe Maddon, Martinez is already developing a reputation as a superb communicator, a highly valued skill in a winning clubhouse. Even the team’s biggest star, and impending free agent, has nothing but kind words for his skipper.

In the video, Harper says, “He’s one of the best managers I’ve ever played for. His door is open every single day. He’s got a heart that — I haven’t really played for a manager like this guy. I look forward to hopefully playing with him for the next 10, 12 years. He’s one of the best, so hopefully, we’ll see what happens.”

Harper has doubled down on those sentiments multiple times. After his epic Home Run Derby performance at Nats Park earlier this summer, he brought up Martinez again.

“I’ve got one of the best managers in all of baseball. I’m very happy to have him at our helm. He’s a guy I’d run through a fricking brick wall for, and I was trying to do that for him tonight.”

If a first-year manager can get his most famous player to run through a brick wall for him three months into the job, that’s a pretty good sign for the connections he makes and relationships he builds.

It’s entirely possible, if not likely, that the Nats made a mistake in letting go of Dusty Baker last offseason, but that doesn’t make Martinez a bad hire. Rather, his willingness to rely on unproven talent in this era of baseball, improvements at managing a bullpen, undeniable communication skills and abilities earning the trust of the players all point to a bright future in Washington with Martinez at the helm.

It wasn’t a perfect debut debut season, but he still managed to get a few things right.

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