- - Thursday, April 5, 2018

Having already recorded his first victory as a manager — followed by his first series sweep, first four-game winning streak and first two losses — Washington manager Dave Martinez donned the home whites at Nationals Park for the first time.

News of general manager Mike Rizzo’s contract extension stole some of Martinez’s shine Thursday, but it was welcomed. That was one less thing to wonder about.

But what were his expectations entering his inaugural contest as the skipper on South Capitol Street?

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He predicted more of what he experienced during his last visit — the feeling, not the emotions in the first-base dugout at game’s end.

“This is gonna be fun,” Martinez said prior to the Nats’ 8-2 home-opening defeat against the New York Mets.

He was wrong, unless you’re entertained by seventh-inning grand slams by Jay Bruce. But let’s say Martinez was speaking in general about managing high-interest games in Washington.

“I think this place is going to be electric,” he said. “When we came here for Game 5 last year, it was electric.”

By “we,” he means the Chicago Cubs, who celebrated a first-round, postseason clincher at Nats Park like the 2016 Dodgers and 2012 Cardinals before them. The electricity Martinez felt as Chicago’s bench coach has fried Washington’s fan base but it convinces him this is a genuine baseball town.

He certainly has a powerful roster at his disposal, the envy of most peers. He’s like a kid with a new toy, pushing buttons and pulling levers, twisting knobs and turning cranks to see everything it can do.

Thursday’s lineup was his second in which the pitcher batted eighth. “It’s more about batting (center fielder Michael A. Taylor) ninth and turning the lineup over,” he said. The thought was Taylor might see more fastballs with left fielder Adam Eaton behind him.

Half of the equation worked.

Eaton continued his torrid start with two hits, a walk and two runs. That raised his batting average to .455 before he was lifted in the sixth inning, a precaution due to an awkward slide three innings earlier. But Taylor continued to struggle, dropping to .143 with a team-high eight strikeouts.

We knew everything Martinez touched wouldn’t turn to gold. The Nats are streaking in the wrong direction, losers of three consecutive after a 4-0 start. Defensive shifts have giveth — Adrian Gonzalez’s single to left through a vacated hole – and defensive shifts have taketh away — Asdrubal Cabrera’s groundout to “shortstop” with Trea Turner on the diamond’s right side.

The vaunted 1-2 punch atop the rotation, Max Scherzer and Thursday’s starter Stephen Strasburg, are 0-2 in the last two games. First baseman Ryan Zimmerman, Martinez’s cleanup hitter, is batting .136 and left five runners aboard Thursday for the second time this season.

The guinea pig in a grand spring training experiment that limited him to two at-bats, Zimmerman has faith that the skipper knows what he’s doing, even though he’s never skippered before.

“He does a really good job of getting us ready and trusting us as a veteran team,” Zimmerman said, adding he’s no longer talking about spring training, though the media can have at it. “That’s over,” he said. “My body feels great and I think that was the goal.”

Martinez said he’s committed to Zimmerman and isn’t worried about the zig-zag start Washington has endured. “Last three games, not so good,” Martinez said. “First four, real good. There’s a whole lot of baseball left.”

And probably a lot of tinkering, too, at least as much that feels right and seems necessary — not always in that order.

Second baseman Daniel Murphy’s injury has prevented Martinez from writing out his ultimate lineup card; if Eaton’s tweaked ankle lingers, the manager will have to adjust further. Which is perfectly fine with him.

He doesn’t want injuries to force his hand, though, because he’s a willing mixer-and-matcher who’s still understanding his pieces.

“I learned a lot the first week,” he said. “It’s been a lot of fun, lots of positives. Lots of things people have questioned at times. But I said from the beginning, I have 25 players on the roster and I’m gonna utilize all 25. I want to keep all of them engaged.”

Engaged and on their toes, like his coaching staff. He leans on them heavily, a trait he picked up from open-minded Cubs manager Joe Maddon. Martinez shared how Maddon often would ask for an opinion, listen to it, and a lot of times “look at me and say ‘I like that; let’s do it.’”

Now it’s Martinez, who describes himself as “very opinionated,” seeking input from bench coach Chip Hale and pitching coach Derek Lilliquist. He asks what they think and demands honesty, because he already knows what he thinks.

Then he gets to make the final decision, just like envisioned the last 10 years. “I always thought of this as an awesome job,” he said.

He has at least 80 more chances this year to grow into the gig — and win — at home.

Like he said, this should be fun.

Deron Snyder writes his award-winning column for The Washington Times on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Follow him on Twitter @DeronSnyder.

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