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Dusty Baker’s impact on the Washington Nationals is a double-edged sword

Dusty Baker’s always had a questionable method for handling pitchers, but his role as a “players’ manager” is what made the Washington Nationals into the dominant unit they are.

MLB: Game One-San Francisco Giants at Washington Nationals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday, Max Scherzer managed to get through six innings allowing just two runs on 97 pitches. He hadn’t been pitching at his best, but Dusty Baker opted to send his ace back out to the mound for the seventh.

Scherzer gave up five earned runs in that inning, throwing 19 more pitches and pushing his ERA up from 2.34 to 2.59. It appeared to be another classic example of Baker leaving his starter in too long before it was revealed that Scherzer’s game plan was to throw over 100 pitches as part of his recovery process from the neck injury that forced him onto the DL in August.

While Baker might receive a pass for this instance, it’s not the first time he’s raised eyebrows with the workload he’s given his starters. According to Team Rankings, Gio Gonzalez (105.4), Tanner Roark (102.7), Scherzer (102.1) and Stephen Strasburg (98.7) all rank within the top 25 of pitchers in pitches per start.

The Nats are the only team in baseball with three pitchers in the top 10 and four within the top 25, clearly establishing them as a team that sees 110 pitches as the new 100. All four of those starters are going to make up Washington’s playoff rotation as well, putting the pressure on them to stay fresh and not let the grind of the six-month season wear them down.

Baker’s bullpen management has been questionable as well. He tends to send left-handed specialist Oliver Perez out for full innings and pushes one-inning arms Enny Romero and Matt Grace to get four, five or six outs at a time. He also subscribes to established bullpen roles, meaning Sean Doolittle’s going to pitch the ninth inning even if the opponent’s three best hitters are due up in the eighth.

When it comes to the lineup, Baker isn’t one to budge on his placement of his hitters. Anthony Rendon might have been one of the best hitters in baseball from May through July while Ryan Zimmerman slowly cooled off from his hot start, but Baker refused to swap their placements in the order.

Adrian Sanchez, Wilmer Difo and Brian Goodwin hit at the top of the order consistently while starters Trea Turner, Jayson Werth and Michael Taylor sat on the DL, despite the fact that all three players had less than 50 games of MLB experience entering the season. Rather than shuffle his regular starters around, Baker just inserted fill-in players in the spots where players were missing.

Finally, Baker has a reputation of favoring veterans over younger players regardless of who’s playing better. That notion will gain traction if Baker decides to start Werth over Howie Kendrick in left field once the playoffs begin. Werth’s a strong clubhouse presence, but has hit just .158 (6-for-38) since returning from injury. Kendrick’s hitting .313 as a Nat.

Regardless of how he manages the game, Baker’s still done wonders for the team’s clubhouse culture. After Matt Williams was fired following the disastrous 2015 season, it was clear that there was a divide among players.

Baker was brought in with experience with handling stars like Barry Bonds, Jeff Kent, Sammy Sosa and Joey Votto. His easy going approach was vastly different from Williams’ rigid style, and it’s clear that was the difference for this team to reach its full potential — at least in the regular season.

The jury’s still out on Baker, but there might be a reason why he’s never won a World Series as a manager. He’s been the skipper of some great teams, but has never been able to go all the way. The team’s been one of the best regular season teams in baseball since he joined the organization, but their NLDS roadblock has still hung over the team. At 68 years old, these Nationals might be one of the last chances he has to capture that elusive championship title.