The boos had become something of a ritual.
It was September 2015, and manager Matt Williams was positioned squarely on the hot seat. The Washington Nationals weren’t playing well, Bryce Harper had been choked by Jonathan Papelbon, and Williams had reportedly lost the clubhouse.
So every night, when Williams would walk into the media conference room at Nats Park, he would hear it from the fans. Standing on the other side of the floor-to-ceiling glass window that separates the press room from the VIP lounge (an uncommon and potentially awkward setup), they would routinely jeer Washington’s soon-to-be-outgoing skipper. And every night, Williams would sit there stone-faced, conducting his postgame interview and pretending that the boos weren’t really there. Just like he pretended that everything was hunky-dory with his team.
Four years later, history repeated itself. Kind of.
Following a recent home loss, Davey Martinez made his way to the podium and was greeted with negativity from the other side of the window wall. Unlike the end of the Williams era, this wasn’t a chorus of boos — it was just one solitary taunt from a rogue fan who, in all likelihood, had consumed one adult beverage too many. Still, it was the first of its kind during Martinez’s tenure.
It was the first time that the Nats skipper, an exceedingly nice man who goes out of his way to hold the door for every member of the media as they exit the press room, was treated not nicely in that very same room. Whether Martinez receives the same treatment from Washington’s front office that Williams did — whether he gets pink-slipped well before his contract runs out — remains to be seen.
“We’re not making any decisions with a third of the season gone,” general manager Mike Rizzo said on Friday afternoon, prior to the opener of a four-game set against the Marlins, when asked about his manager’s job security. While hardly an indictment of Martinez, the response wasn’t exactly a resounding vote of confidence, either. Especially considering that it came from a no-nonsense exec who had no problem dropping the hammer on pitching coach Derek Lilliquist earlier this month. “We’ve got a lot of season left. Davey’s not happy with what’s going on; nobody’s happy with what’s going on — the fan base, ownership and myself. Things gotta get better. We’ve got to play better baseball.”
Rizzo’s club then went out and, despite managing to pull out a 12-10 come-from-behind win over last-place Miami, played the opposite of better baseball. Once again, the defense was offensive (four errors, tied for a season high). Once again, the bullpen was leaky (five runs allowed in five innings). Once again, Davey Martinez — whose club won a series opener for just the third time in 17 tries this season — sat there on the postgame dias and, like Matt Williams before him, tried to pretend that everything was OK.
But this time, unlike most times this season, he had trouble doing so. Instead of remaining impossibly positive, as he’s wont to do and as he’s done after seemingly every one of his team’s 31 losses (second most in the National League), Martinez seemed a bit more in touch with reality.
“I can tell you right now if I was a fan, I’m frustrated. I am,” Martinez said following a game in which the hometown fans booed their team repeatedly, including after each and every error the Nats committed. “And I am a fan of these guys because I know them. They don’t want to play like that. I know they don’t. But, hey, I keep telling them every day: Simplify. You are not going to win 14 games with just one game. Play one game, just play one game. Every pitch of every inning, just play that pitch and move on from there. Don’t think you’re going to make up all these games in one. Just play the game, simplify everything, just play hard. They play hard, but we’ve got to clean it up.”
While hardly a tongue-lashing, Martinez’s tone seemed to reflect a certain awareness of the situation, and the situation is this: The 2019 Nationals are a hot mess. They’re such a hot mess that the following night, Martinez let starter Patrick Corbin throw 116 pitches in a complete-game shutout over Miami. For Corbin, the big-ticket offseason acquisition who’s one of the best things Washington has going for it right now, those 116 pitches were the second most he’s ever thrown during his seven-year career. The only time he threw more? That’d be three weeks ago, during a 10-8 win against the Phillies.
It’s hard to fault Martinez — impossible, really — for leaning on Corbin as heavily as he has. Because that’s what you do when the sign on the bullpen door reads, “CAUTION: FLAMMABLE.” That’s what you do when your team enters Memorial Day weekend as the only team in the majors that hadn’t strung together three wins in a row. That’s what you do when, justly or not, the local and national airwaves are filled with folks calling for you job.
Martinez’s job used to belong to Dusty Baker, who replaced Williams and proceeded to average 96 wins and win two NL East titles during his two seasons in D.C. But Baker, whose teams were bounced in the first round of the playoffs both years, couldn’t get Washington over the hump, and so he was let go.
Last year, in Martinez’s first season as a manager, the Nats went 82-80 and were considered the most disappointing team in baseball. Impossible though it may seem, they’ve been even more disappointing this season. Given that data, and given how sloppy his team has been in the field and on the base paths, how could you not blame Martinez for the Nationals’ failures?
On the other hand, how could you possibly blame Martinez for his team’s poor performance? After all, he’s spent much of this season without the four best position players of the Dusty Baker era (Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy are gone; Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon were injured). Although his bullpen management skills are still a work in progress, he’s not the one responsible for assembling a Washington relief corps that was loaded with question marks and has been a train wreck wrapped in a dumpster fire. He’s also not the one responsible for trading away starter Tanner Roark — a dependable innings-eater — and replacing him with 35-year-old Anibal Sanchez, who is winless in nine starts, hasn’t thrown more than 160 innings since 2013 and is on the injured list.
“Everyone’s got their part in it,” said Rizzo, who is ultimately responsible for building the Nationals’ roster. “Management, general manager, everyone’s got their part in how we’re playing, just as we have for the past eight years of how well we’ve played. This is a team process. There’s a lot of things that have to go right to win, and we certainly have to turn around and play better baseball.”
Lately, the Nationals have done just that. Since Rizzo’s comments on Friday afternoon, they’ve yet to lose, putting together a three-game winning streak for the first time this season. What’s more, they’ve got ace Max Scherzer taking the hill in the series finale on Monday (so what if they’ve shockingly won just two of Scherzer’s 11 starts so far). Sure, the recent success has come against a lowly Marlins squad that came to D.C. as the only team in the NL with a worse record than Washington. But those same Marlins also came to D.C. having won six games in a row. And it was those same Marlins who a month ago in Miami took two of three from the Nats. All of which is to say, improvement is improvement and wins are wins, regardless of which team is on the other side.
Where the Nationals go from here is anybody’s guess. Maybe the Marlins series sparks them and they go on an improbable run, forcing their way into the wild-card conversation. Or maybe Memorial Day weekend is just a mirage and Washington continues to underachieve, giving management no choice but to blow up the roster and trade away sellable parts in hopes of retooling for future playoff runs. If that happens, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Martinez, who’s in the second year of a three-year deal, make an early exit.
In the meantime, the fans in the VIP lounge — the ones on the other side of that giant glass-window wall — are behaving themselves. For Martinez and the Nationals, that’s a positive sign. And right now, they’ll take any positive sign they can get.