“Make Baseball Fun Again.” The slogan on a hat donned by a certain former Washington Nationals outfielder at the start of the 2016 season.
Though Bryce Harper has now departed for Philadelphia, the players that now don the curly-W are taking his advice as the team is playing some of its most exciting baseball since manager Dave Martinez took the helm before the 2018 season.
The Nats’ stars are exceeding their high expectations, the youngsters are running wild on the basepaths when they’re not hitting towering taters, and the clubhouse has internal leadership that had been lacking recently.
It has a perfect mix of players from different backgrounds, different ages, different personalities, all blending as one. The togetherness of the group as one unit is something that not many other teams can boast.
“Team chemistry is real good,” Martinez said after the sweep of the Marlins last Thursday.
“You see them out there. Like I said, every day they know it’s a grind but they pull for each other, they get ready.”
Early on in the season, while they were one of the most banged up teams in the National League, the Nationals were seemingly finding new ways to lose games.
The bullpen was catastrophic, the pieced-together offense seemed to go missing every other game, a few of the starters stumbled out of the gate, and plenty of games were badly mismanaged by Martinez, with every button he pressed becoming the wrong button.
It all seemed to come to a head when the Nats suffered a brutal four-game sweep at the hand of the New York Mets that left several questions about the direction of the franchise.
It wasn’t easy to watch the team during that time with so many fundamental errors.
But since then, the Nationals aren’t doing a whole lot wrong. They have the best winning percentage in baseball since May 24th, the day after they were swept in Flushing and with all phases of their game clicking at the right time.
“We’re doing everything right,” Matt Adams explained before Thursday’s game. “Showing up to the ballpark ready to work and just taking it game-by-game.”
“We’re not looking too far ahead and stuff like that. Guys are showing up, working hard, and going out there and having fun playing the game.”
The clubhouse feels like a totally different place than it was just a few weeks ago. Everyone has loosened up as the wins keep coming, and most importantly, the dancing in the dugout, which has been a huge hit with the team’s fans.
Even some of the veterans like Adams, Brian Dozier, and Kurt Suzuki have been busting some moves. We’ll see if Ryan Zimmerman joins in when he gets his next homer. Seems unlikely, but you never know...
Sure, the winning helps keep the clubhouse morale up. Every clubhouse is more fun when it’s winning, that’s hardly a big secret.
But even during the losing early on, Martinez was able to keep the team’s heads up, continually emphasizing that things will turn around. And now, they have.
“We’re playing good baseball recently and hopefully we continue and make up some ground,” Mike Rizzo told the Sports Junkies last Wednesday.
“It’s time to just go out and win each and every game let the chips fall where they may.”
“We put ourselves back in a position to be a factor so we’re happy about that and we’re hoping to continue to play well and put ourselves in an enviable position in the standings.”
Part of the reason for this run is down to some of the rotten luck suffered correcting itself.
Back on June 4th, Eno Sarris of The Athletic dubbed the Nats baseball’s unluckiest team.
This was based on a few factors such as the team’s wOBA compared to its expected wOBA, run differential, and their projected winning percentage.
Juan Soto and Max Scherzer have both turned around sluggish starts, by their standards at least, to become the superstar players the Nats were expecting. Other players have also had much better luck as they correct toward their career averages in this run.
However, maybe what the Nationals really needed was some fresh blood to give new life into what was a fairly dejected place over the first month and a half.
One of those new players has arguably been one of the biggest influences on the upbeat, dance-crazy clubhouse atmosphere is Gerardo Parra.
The outfielder made an instant impression on the field with his go-ahead grand slam in just his second game, but has had just as much influence off the field. While he’s one of the newer members, he’s clearly one of the most popular.
He even has an interesting walk-up song, just in case he wasn’t quite being fun enough...
“I wanted to put up something different,” Parra said of his new walk-up song. “My daughter loves that song, so before the game I tried to put in merengue, reggaeton, hip-hop, I said, you know what I want to put in Baby Shark.”
Buoyed by their recent form, Parra and the Nats now return home - where Pinkfong will once again ring down Half Street - for six games against the Miami Marlins and Kansas City Royals. A perfect chance to finish the first half on a high note.
While the Nationals have a chance to put themselves right in the thick of the postseason hunt, the manager refuses to get carried away, keeping the same mentality that he has throughout his tenure with the team...
“We talked about this the other day, and for me it’s just one more win,” Martinez said after the series opener in Detroit. “Let’s just keep going. The boys are playing well. There’s a lot of excitement going on right now.”
Even though Martinez won’t get sucked into any complacency despite this run, it’s hard to ignore the brand of baseball the Nats are consistently putting on display lately.
The Nationals still have plenty of work to do this year, but weeks after the season seemed lost, Nats fans can start to feel the excitement emanating from their team again...