Three games into his postseason managing career, Davey Martinez has faced no shortage of drama-filled tests of his in-game strategy and decision making. The Washington Nationals are tied 1-1 with the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS, and Martinez’s willingness to pull the trigger on some big risks has been a big reason why they’ve gotten this far.
Four short months ago, the Nationals were written off and Martinez’s future with the organization was up in the air. Their 19-31 start dug them into a hole that made the rest of the regular season into a series of must-win games. But it’s that approach—focusing on going 1-0 each day and not worrying about what lies ahead—that’s come in handy for Martinez this October as the Nats have had to get creative in order to lock down hard-fought wins.
Sean Doolittle spent most of the regular season serving as the Nationals’ lone bullpen anchor, and Martinez turned to him often because of the carousel of struggling relievers who pitched in front of him. The workload ultimately took its toll on Doolittle, forcing him to the Injured List and hurting his performance down the stretch. But it taught Martinez to rely on his best players, turning to them for big moments time and time again regardless of the ramifications.
It’s why Anthony Rendon started every game from when he was activated off the IL on May 7 until the last week of the season. The same goes for Trea Turner, who played all but one game after he returned from a broken finger May 17, and Juan Soto, who missed a week with back spasms in early May but started all but two games the rest of the year.
Martinez would’ve probably liked to take a page out of his predecessor Dusty Baker’s book, giving his starters regular rest to keep them fresh and healthy by the time the playoffs started. But the poor start didn’t allow Martinez that luxury, forcing him to start his nine best players every day in order to rack up as many wins as possible.
So in the days leading up to the NL Wild Card Game, it came as no surprise when Martinez voiced his plan to start Max Scherzer but make his co-aces Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin available out of the bullpen if necessary.
It certainly wasn’t the first move of its kind: The Arizona Diamondbacks started Zack Greinke in the 2017 NL Wild Card Game but turned to Robbie Ray for a couple frames and the Toronto Blue Jays turned to Francisco Liriano in extra innings to lock down the 2016 AL Wild Card Game after Marcus Stroman started the contest, just to name a few.
But the decision showed that Martinez puts more stock in the talent he has than the traditional roles that managers have fit their rosters to for decades. When he was hired, the Joe Maddon understudy came from an organization in the Chicago Cubs that’s among the most analytical franchises in the game. Although he may not necessarily be cut from the same statistically minded cloth as Maddon, this excerpt from The Washington Post, which was written about two months before his managerial debut, shows he has always proven to be one thing: flexible.
“As for Martinez the manager, no one knows quite what the Nationals are getting. [Ozzie] Guillen’s best guess is that Martinez is something of a [Mike] Rizzo-like hybrid, an ‘old school baseball man’ open to new-school analytic tricks, if not defined by them. He is no analytics expert, but he wants to hear from those who are, which is one reason the Nationals hired him.”
Guillen was exactly right about Martinez, who will do things like intentionally walk the tying run in the bottom of the ninth to produce a better matchup like he did in Game 2 of the NLDS—something that will make any sabermetrics expert cringe—but also try out Victor Robles at the No. 9 spot in the batting order or deploy the since-released Matt Grace as an opener.
With the NLDS now headed back to D.C., the Nationals are in the driver’s seat with home field advantage in a three-game series to decide who advances to the next round. Martinez will have to deal with the ramifications of pitching Strasburg on short rest and using Scherzer out of the bullpen in-between starts, but his flexibility and willingness to embrace outside-the-box thinking is what’s got them this far.
The Nationals have been playing postseason baseball since May, and Martinez may be the one person who’s served to benefit the most because of it. No manager spent more time this year focusing on winning the day, tomorrow be damned. If Washington can ride that approach to two more wins, it’ll be Martinez who will be leading the team farther than it’s ever been before.