Davey Martinez started building his résumé for 2021 National League Manager of the Year on Tuesday, putting his players in place to succeed and keeping his team in the game until Juan Soto’s ninth-inning heroics sealed a 6-5 Opening Day win over Atlanta.
With 11 players on the Injured List because of COVID, the Nats had to recall players they’d just sent to the alternate training site before the season opener. Both the team’s regular catchers were sent to the IL, so the team signed former All-Star Jonathan Lucroy after the Chicago White Sox released him.
Lucroy not only ably handled ace Max Scherzer, he got the comeback started in the second inning with a two-run double off Atlanta starter Drew Smyly, scoring Hernan Perez and Andrew Stevenson, two of the subs who had to fill in for everyday starters who were out.
Lucroy, Perez and Stevenson succeeded after Martinez set them up. So, for that matter, did Victor Robles, Trea Turner and Soto when it came to winning the game in the ninth.
The man who made out the batting order put them where they could to succeed.
That’s what a great manager does.
“I’m proud of the boys,” said Martinez.
“Man, they battled all game, fell behind, and testament to them, I say this all the time, they don’t quit. They’re going to play hard, they’re going to play hard for nine innings, and you saw that tonight.”
Martinez, now in his fourth season as the Nats’ skipper, should have won the NL Manager of the Year Award two years ago, when he guided the team from 19-31 to the World Series championship. Nats fans are still struggling to understand how he was beaten out for the honor by Craig Counsell, the manager of the team the Nats beat out for home field, then eliminated, in the 2019 NL Wild Card Game, though voting takes place before postseason games start.
Martinez likely has gotten over that snub, and he’s not the kind of guy who would covet such an award, anyway.
He just goes about the business of running the team and putting his players in position to succeed.
Martinez batted righty Lucroy eighth in the order against Smyly’s left-handed offerings.
Martinez almost certainly knew of his .337 career OBP vs. lefties.
“This guy has been around for a lot of years. I’ve known about him, I’ve coached against him for many, many years. He just comes to play baseball, he understands the game very well, said Martinez.
Lucroy was happy to have a team to play for, but he recognizes what makes the Nationals’ clubhouse click.
“I’ve been fortunate like I said, to be on a lot of great teams and be around almost 10 years, I’m almost there. Whatever happens is going to happen, and I’m okay with it,” he said.
“These guys, they’ve got to do what they’ve got to do, “ he continued. “They’ve got a special clubhouse. I’m just happy to be a small part of it right now.”
Stevenson, 26, who’s stuck around the Nationals for a few seasons as a reserve, is known to MASN TV analyst F.P. Santangelo as the Nats’ “secret weapon.” He’s not so secret anymore, flipping the script on the lefty-lefty pitching matchups against Smyly and Tyler Matzek for a 2-for-4, one-run, one-RBI day.
“He stays in there, whether it’s right or left. He’s a good fastball hitter, but he stayed on the ball really, really well.“ said Martinez.
Stevenson is primed for a breakout season, even as a fourth outfielder. His .486 and .447 on-base percentages from 2018 and 2019, even in limited action, are good clues that the guy knows how to get on base, and when Martinez put him in the seventh spot in the batting order, he came through.
“I like what he’s doing,” the manager continued. “He’s going to get an opportunity to play some games especially here early with guys out.”
The man in front of Stevenson, Hernán Pérez, was another last-minute call-back-up from the alternate site. He’s played parts of nine seasons with Detroit, Milwaukee, and the Chicago Cubs. His .252/.282./.326 slash line wouldn’t scare most pitchers, but he came through for Martinez, going 1-for-3 and scoring a run. Perhaps Martinez saw his .783 and .731 OPS vs lefties in his last two full seasons, 2018 and 2019, and knew he might hit against the Atlanta southpaws.
One move most fans were waiting for Martinez to make was to bat center fielder Victor Robles in the leadoff spot. That’s where Martinez slotted the 23-year-old against Atlanta.
He got on base and scored in his second plate appearance and walked again in the seventh, when he was stranded with the Nats behind 5-4.
Robles’ persistence paid off in the ninth, when he took the first pitch he saw from Atlanta closer Will Smith the other way for a single to right. He moved into position to score the winning run in the first game of the season. His presence on the basepaths was also good news for Turner, who belted a two-run homer with Robles on in the third.
That was Turner’s only hit of the day, but true to form, he was hit by a pitch in the ninth to push Robles into scoring position.
Sometimes setting Juan Soto up to succeed is as simple a directing him to home plate when it’s his turn to bat. But even Soto fails more than he succeeds in baseball, so it’s quite alright for him to go 1-for-5 when that one hit is his first career walk-off — on a 3-0 count, no less.
“Juan knows the strike zone really well, he’s going to get a good pitch to hit,” said Martinez. ‘If he gets to that count 3-0, and they’re going to throw him a strike, you’re the guy — you want him up there and you want him to get the job done.”
Martinez orchestrated his lineup like a maestro, getting the highest possible notes from the flute section and the most bone-rattling bass from the low brass — all with the best musicians missing. He put that lineup together on the fly for a team that might as well be held together with duct tape and baling wire.
And we haven’t even talked about Martinez’s pitching management.
The Nats won on a day when Max Scherzer gave up four home runs in six innings. Kyle Finnegan followed Scherzer and had a rough start to the 2021 season, allowing a run on two hits and a walk.
But after that, it was lights out. Wander Suero and Kyle McGowin — another last-minute call-up — combined with Daniel Hudson to put zeroes on the board for the last two innings, keeping the Nats in position to come back and win.
It’s easy to speculate and hand out postseason awards on Opening Day, and it’s even more fun when the reserves play a key role in winning the game. But the breaks won’t go Washington’s way every game, and everyone on the team is bound to make some kind of mistake that might cost the team a game, a run, or an out. That’s the nature of the game.
“(I) have a lot of confidence in the guys in the clubhouse,” Turner said postgame. “Our coaching staff and our players, I think we’re going to compete. Every day is not going to be pretty, some days you’re going to have guys and some days you’re not and you got to fight and not make excuses.”
As long as Martinez is the manager, with the talent the Nationals have, he will put them in position to win a game more often than not. Martinez is a manager who knows how to get the most out of players, whether it’s Pérez or Soto. He does it by learning how his players succeed and then putting the player in those situations where they can thrive.