By MARK F. GRAY, Special to the AFRO
When the Washington Nationals unceremoniously fired Dusty Baker because after two tries he couldn’t lead them beyond the National League Division Series, everything was supposedly in place to get to the World Series. The critics, mostly sabre metric geeks who rely on analytics instead of having a feel for the game, chided him for not being able to manage the bullpen after another postseason implosion.
Give the Nationals credit; they remain consistent. This year’s implosion came during the regular season where the bullpen was even worse and the starters – not named Max Scherzer – were inconsistent to put things mildly. Their offense was atrocious and there were no answers, so they find themselves on the outside looking in at the playoffs for the first time in three years.
While the calls for Baker’s head were fast and furious the criticism this year has been measured and reserved. Sports talk pundits around the city haven’t been spewing the same venom as they did towards Baker. They are reluctant to bring accountability to bear on a front office that never addressed the flaws of the roster nor how his replacement Davey Martinez did as poor a job managing his bench as any manager in baseball.
You don’t give keys to a Mercedes Benz to a kid who can’t drive, then remain quiet when he crashes. That’s what Martinez did with the Nationals. He ran them off the road and totaled them. The Nationals’ season was a multi-car accident on the beltway at rush hour. They were lethargic and uninspired at times and when they needed a jump start Martinez didn’t have any cables nor could he call AAA. He was a deer caught in headlights.
There are different managing styles for the regular season and the playoffs. Everything is magnified under the glare of postseason because one bad move can lead to a vacation. However, there is something to be said for the ability to manage 162 games over the six month marathon that is the regular season. Baker was a master at keeping the clubhouse grounded and knew the buttons on each player to get them through slumps and to end losing streaks.
Martinez has been given a hall pass because of the injuries that weakened them for long stretches. They lost Ryan Zimmerman, Steven Strasburg, Adam Eaton, Matt Eaton and Anthony Rendon for a combined 220 games between them. Bryce Harper slumped at the plate for half of the season too. Gio Gonzalez couldn’t be counted on for quality starts and the bullpen was a disaster. Yet the team stayed put at the trading deadline hoping Martinez could wave a magic wand that would bring another division title or at least a wildcard game back to D.C.
When Mike Rizzo – the architect of this roster – said that simply getting to the playoffs was no longer acceptable after jettisoning Baker, he effectively put himself on blast. He led everyone to believe that this would be the year of the Nats and it was anything but. This year was a disaster. Period. His hand-picked replacement for Baker wasn’t up to the challenge of managing the expectations of a championship franchise and Rizzo didn’t help him either. By standing firm at the trading deadline it signaled the Nationals had raised the white flag. When they lost 12-0 in the season finale at Colorado that said it all.
Rizzo is now the one on blast. He can’t pass the buck any longer on to managers or players who don’t achieve because he hasn’t been able to blend the right parts into a champion either.