After a long and incredibly active offseason for the Washington Nationals, Opening Day finally arrived. It was time for Dave Martinez and his team to show off the new and improved approach they had been working on all spring to get the fans excited.
Instead, a 2-0 loss to the New York Mets followed, and it felt like a lot of what we had seen from this team last season. It wasn’t so much the fact they lost, it was the way they lost that was most puzzling.
Admittedly, it was only one game, and that one game was against one of the best pitchers in baseball in Jacob deGrom. That’s not an easy assignment for any team.
But a display of the new fundamentally sound approach that management has been attempting to preach this offseason would’ve been a welcome sight. Even more so given the 48 hours between games for everyone to stew on what happened on Thursday.
It all started when the Nationals had an early chance to level the score in the third inning.
Victor Robles led off the inning with a double, then Adam Eaton followed it up with a sharp single to leave runners on the corners with nobody out. A perfect scoring chance.
The next man up, Trea Turner, struck out despite being ahead in the count. It wasn’t a great at-bat, but should’ve been no big deal with Anthony Rendon at the plate.
The third baseman grounded the ball to shortstop, and after some indecision from Robles, he was caught in no man’s land after the force out at second. That turned into a 5-4-2-5 double play allowing to Mets to inexplicably escape the inning unscathed.
“That’s just a young baserunning mistake by him,” Martinez said after the game. “We talked about it. He knows just to run, stay out of the double play. We’ll have Soto coming up if he runs into an out, but we’ve got a man on first and second.”
The young outfielder also acknowledged his mistake following the game.
“I got a little confused,” Robles said via a translator after the game. “In the middle of the moment I realized I had made a mistake, so I tried to kind of make up for it.”
A rookie making a baserunning mistake in isolation is nothing to panic about. It happens to every team on several occasions during a season.
However, it was a little disappointing that after a whole spring hearing about fundamentals, within the first few innings of the season, a baserunning gaffe like that occurs.
But perhaps the most egregious mistake was when Martinez let Max Scherzer hit for himself in the seventh inning. With the score at 1-0 and the right-hander up to 93 pitches, it seemed like the perfect spot to let Matt Adams pinch-hit.
“I was trying to give [Scherzer] a chance to stay in the game and win the game,” Martinez said of the decision. “I knew we had six outs with our top guys coming up to hit.”
“We had six more outs to get a run. I knew that spot would come up again, I was trying to save [Matt Adams] to face either [Edwin] Díaz or [Juerys] Familia if we get to that spot.”
A strange decision to say the least from the Nationals manager, with an explanation that didn’t really justify it. With the deficit at just one run, every out was valuable for the Nats, especially when any pinch hitter would’ve been the tying run.
Scherzer’s pitch count was also way up at 93 and ended up being a bloated 109. While the ace can certainly handle that, it was a perfect time to use a completely fresh bullpen rather than push the right-hander to his limits in his first start of the season.
Even the Nats’ starter seemed a little surprised by the manager’s call to leave him in the game at that point in time. Though as ever, he was up to the task regardless.
“I told Davey, ‘Hey, I’m good to go if you want me,’” the pitcher told reporters after the game. “‘Manage the game the way you want to manage the game. I understand if you’ve got to pinch hit for me.’”
“But he said, ‘That’s fine,’ and from my standpoint I was just mentally ready to go out and pitch the eighth, that was the extent of that conversation.”
As much as the ace of the staff is a competitor and would’ve wanted a win in his column, he would’ve wanted a win in his team’s column a lot more.
As with the Robles mental error, in the big picture, this one mistake is not a big deal. But the manager chasing personal stats over team stats is a trend that will need to stop for the Nats to have success.
After pulling Scherzer in the eighth inning, Martinez bypassed Tony Sipp, who was specifically brought in to be a lefty specialist, for Matt Grace. But the manager at least appeared to have valid reasoning behind this decision.
“I liked Grace’s two-seamer against [Robinson] Canó,” Martinez elaborated after the game. “He made a great pitch, Canó just got jammed and blooped one into left field.”
Sipp later warmed up in the bullpen, so it appears as though he was available if needed. So while not too much should be thought of this, hopefully, the manager will take note of his poor game and make an effort to improve.
Now, let’s not overreact to this one game too much. After all, it is only the first of the year.
There are 161 more of them, and the vast majority will go a lot better than Opening Day did for the Nationals.
Let’s just hope that this first game was the team and the manager getting last year out of their system, rather than seeing the same trend as last season play out yet again.