Davey Martinez’s club went 19-31 in the first 50 games, then went 74-38 the rest of the way, with eight straight wins to wrap up the regular season schedule, so the Nationals’ manager said that he was just hoping for more of the same heading into last night’s Wild Card Game in Washington, D.C.
“We came into this swinging the bats well, playing really well,” Martinez told reporters in his pregame press conference in Nationals Park.
“A testament to our guys wanting to play this game at home,” the second-year skipper said.
“They really stepped up over the last week, and just really took it upon themselves to say, hey, they want to play this one game at home and stepped up and did that, so for us to continue to keep playing the way we were playing over the last 10-12 days was really good coming into this one game and moving forward.”
GM Mike Rizzo told reporters on Monday that he didn’t think a win-or-go-home matchup would be much different for the Nationals, who fought to stay alive from May on.
“It’s Game 163,” Rizzo said. “It’s a win-or-go-home game, and that’s been our mindset for about four and a half months, and tomorrow is a game we have to win.”
Martinez said even though the stakes were higher, he wanted his team to approach the NL Wild Card Game like they’ve gone into every game this season.
“Obviously it’s one game,” the manager said. “We’ve got to play to win one game. All year I told these guys — my message was clear with them, ‘Hey, let’s go 1-0.’ And that’s not going to change today. How we do that? We’ll have to wait and see, but we’re going to try to go 1-0 today.”
Asked how the team turned things around, after the rough start, which went through the first two months of the season, Martinez said it was all about the roster finally getting healthy, and everyone getting back on the field after they battled a number of injuries.
“Everybody got healthy, and we started playing good, consistent baseball,” he explained.
“We started doing the little things. One of the biggest things that I’ve noticed is our two-strike approach when it came to hitting. We started moving the baseball with two strikes, driving in cheap runs, guys on third base, less than two outs, and just moving the baseball, so let’s continue to do that today.”
Having helped the Chicago Cubs end their World Series drought in his role as Joe Maddon’s bench coach, Martinez was asked if there was anything he could pass on to his team in D.C., where they hadn’t won a decisive postseason game since baseball returned to the nation’s capital in 2005, won a World Series since 1924, or been in one since 1933.
“For me, these are big moments, but we play it all year,” he said.
“We left Spring Training, we started off slow, we picked it up, we’re in a position now to do really good things. The biggest thing for me, and what I tell all the time, is the adrenaline.
“Your adrenaline is going to be going 100 MPH, there’s no doubt. I feel it. But the biggest thing is really, I told them, I said, ‘Hey, control your heartbeat. You guys have come a long way, and played really well, just play one more game.’
“‘Just go 1-0 today, and that’s all we can focus on. You guys together are much better than any individual player, so stick together, play hard, and play to win, and that’s what they’ve been doing for the last four or five months, so let’s continue to do that today.’”
After falling behind 3-0 early when Yasmani Grandal and Eric Thames homered off of Max Scherzer in the first and second innings, respectively, Scherzer held it there, and then Stephen Strasburg came on in the sixth and tossed three scoreless after Trea Turner hit a solo home run to get the Nationals on the board in the third, down 3-1.
With Brewers’ left-hander Josh Hader on the mound in the eighth, Michael A. Taylor reached via hit-by-pitch, Ryan Zimmerman singled with two down, and Anthony Rendon walked with Juan Soto on deck to set up a bases-loaded opportunity that the 20-year-old cashed in with a single to right that right fielder Trent Grisham misplayed into a base-clearing, go-ahead hit, 4-3.
Daniel Hudson locked down the ninth and the Nationals advanced to the NLDS.
“It’s been going like that all year,” Martinez said after the win.
“But like I said, you know, they played to the last out, you know? Every day, they don’t quit until the 27th out is recorded. And honestly, for me, you kind of got used to it. We’re sitting there and nobody ever thought we were ever done until the last out, really. The dugout was fired up. The guys were fired up. Michael gets hit and simultaneously everyone screamed ‘Let’s go,’ and that’s all it took.”
After the disappointing postseasons in the past for the Nationals, what can they take from their NL Wild Card win?
“This was a big win for the guys in the clubhouse,” Martinez said, “celebrating right now, for this organization. We get to move on and go to LA. But it’s a testament to those guys in that clubhouse. They played hard all year long. We started off horrible, as we all know, and we vowed that we wouldn’t quit. I told the boys, ‘I promise you, stay with it, don’t quit, this will turn around,’ and it did. And here we are today.”