Since May 24th, when they were swept in four-straight by the New York Mets as part of a five-game losing streak which left them 12 games under .500 and 10.0 out of first in the National League East, the Washington Nationals have put up the best record in baseball.
With a 28-11 mark in the last 39, the Nationals are 6.0 games out in the division and atop the Wild Card race at the All-Star Break.
Davey Martinez’s squad finished the so-called “first half” of the 2019 campaign strong, with wins in 10 of 12 and 12 of 15, with their 47-42 record overall now the third-best record in the National League.
So with the run they’ve been on, did the Nationals’ second-year skipper wish they could just keep going instead of taking a few days off for the All-Star Break?
“I’d say the way we’re playing, yeah, keep going is great,” Martinez told reporters on Sunday, “but I think we all need a break, I really do. Like I said, a break would be good for some guys that are beat up right now, and we’ll just come back and keep going the way we’re going.”
Anthony Rendon and Max Scherzer, both of whom were selected for but won’t play in the All-Star Game this week, are among those who have been battling injuries.
Rendon has an issue with his left quad and hamstring, while Scherzer has been dealing with back stiffness over the last week-plus.
Scherzer goes into the All-Star Break unbeaten in his last nine starts, with a 0.84 ERA, nine walks (1.27 BB/9), 94 Ks (13.22 K/9), and a .172/.213/.263 line against in his last 64 innings on the mound. He talked before the “first-half” finale about the team coming together over the last six weeks as they’ve turned their season around.
“We’ve really got a good thing going,” the Nationals’ 34-year-old ace said. “We’ve started playing better baseball. Really cleaned up our game all the way around. Everybody had a hand in why we were making mistakes and just not playing winning baseball and then once we started clicking and started getting going, eliminated a lot of mistakes and errors and just made the other team beat us, and if you can make the other team beat you, you’re always doing something right.
“And we know that the guys in this clubhouse are very talented and when we can go out there and play our best baseball and play mistake-free baseball we’re a tough team, and we can compete with anybody in this league, and so I think that’s what you’ve seen over the past handful of weeks of us playing great baseball, and that’s just everybody, everybody in this clubhouse, 1 through 25, everybody has had a role at some point in time and been asked and been called upon, and every time they get [called] upon, everybody has delivered, so that’s the recipe for winning baseball, is when you’ve got everybody pulling on the same rope.”
“Everything is going really well right now,” Brian Dozier said on Sunday, after he wrapped up the first half of his first season in D.C. with a stretch of 29 games (since June 1st) in which he put up a .280/.368/.602 line with nine of his 15 doubles, and seven of 14 homers this season hit over the last five weeks.
“I love how we overcame a lot of things [after] the first month and a half,” Dozier added, “.... and how we finished. We knew things had to turn and we made it happen and we finished into the Break really well, and we’ve got a test, obviously, after the All-Star Break, into the last days of July, so still going to be a test, but at the same time we’re still playing really good baseball, so I think the confidence and everything is back where it needs to be and everything is rolling pretty good.”
“That’s who he is,” Martinez said, when he was asked about Dozier, in particular, turning his season around as the Nationals heated up.
“He’s going to play good defense, he’s going to hit the home runs, work good at bats. He’s been good. Take away the first month, which coming in I said he’s a notorious slow starter, he’s been really good.”
There is, of course, still room for improvement, with the back end of the bullpen and the fifth starter’s spot question marks, but the top four in the rotation have been strong, while the offense has provided support, and as GM Mike Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies last week, a significantly-improved defense has played a big role in the run the Nationals have been on.
“We take as much infield before batting practice and before the gates open that people don’t see than just about any team I’ve ever been with,” Rizzo explained.
“It’s something that when we were going poorly and we were playing such bad defense we wanted to put into our everyday game plan, preparation plan, is to take a full infield, a full outfield, hit cutoff men, do cutoffs and relays, that really a lot of teams including our teams of the past just did not do.
“I give credit to the coaching staff for kind of selling that to the players, and for the players for embracing it and doing it with a smile on their face knowing we were going to have to improve to get where we wanted. So I think all that comes into play, and getting Rendon back at third, and [Trea] Turner back at shortstop kind of solidified our defense, and Dozier swinging the bat much, much better, allowing us to play him every day at second base, he’s a former Gold Glove defender at second base, and the two catchers defensively in [Kurt] Suzuki and [Yan] Gomes have been great.”
Martinez, who spent 10 seasons as a bench coach for Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay and then in Chicago, was asked on Sunday if he’s ever been part of such a dramatic turnaround?
“I can’t remember what year it was, but when I was with Tampa we lost like 14, 15 out of 16 games, something like that, and it was not going well, and we got on fire, turned it around and played really well,” Martinez said.
“The thing that I can tell these guys ... what I tell them every day, ‘Hey, let’s just focus on the here and now,’ and the 1-0, the 1-0 is key. ‘Let’s just go 1-0 every day,’ don’t worry about what we did yesterday, don’t worry about what’s going to happen tomorrow, just go 1-0 every day and that’s been our focus.”
“I truly believe that when everybody contributes, and everybody does the little things, good things happen,” he added at another point in his post game interview on Sunday.
“The fact that we’re putting the ball in play more, cutting down our strikeouts, those things help.”