- - Tuesday, March 27, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez’s circle of trust is about to get a lot bigger — more than 30,000 a game at Nationals Park and many more watching via television and other devices.

It’s not just going to be that little circle that formed outside the clubhouse at spring training in West Palm Beach. No, the circle will widen once the Nationals take the field Thursday to open the season in Cincinnati against the Reds.

Nationals fans are trusting that Martinez will be the manager that finally gets their team past the first round of the National League playoffs, after four failures with three different managers.

But it will be tough. I’m not sure this fan base has ever trusted any of the managers of their team.

They thought Davey Johnson was too old, Matt Williams too rigid, Dusty Baker too much postseason losing. So now it’s up to Martinez, who isn’t too old, isn’t too rigid and hasn’t won or lost one major league game yet as manager, to win them over.

The Nationals’ fan base is still in the early stages of development. It has grown and flourished thanks to the work of general manager Mike Rizzo, who has assembled winning rosters every year since 2012, and the team draws well at Nats Park, averaging about 2.5 million over the last six seasons.

But believe me, if the Nationals wind up taking a fall into rebuilding hell like division rivals in Philadelphia or Atlanta, Nats Park will be a ghost town. It’s a fan base that has become accustomed to winning, with now as many winning seasons under their belts as losing ones since the team arrived from Montreal in 2005.

And they have become accustomed to holding the manager accountable for all of them.

That doesn’t make them unique. But, like the owners of the team, it does make them irrational. This team is on its fourth manager in six years because of the fans as much as the Lerners. Dusty Baker should have been allowed to return to the dugout for another season — Rizzo knew that, but the Lerners and much of the fan base thought otherwise.

When are the players held accountable? Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper were supposed to be the building blocks for success when they began playing their first season together in 2012. But Strasburg has missed two of the four National League Championship Series, and Harper, who, in 19 postseason games, has batted .211 with a .315 on base percentage.

Why do the fans trust the players so much and the manager so little?

I would say that it may be a symptom of the burden of the Washington sports fans, who have tried to muster up trust in their teams year after year, only to have that trust crushed — whether it is the Capitals with their perennial second-round playoff exits, the Wizards, who have started their own second-round departure pattern, or, of course, the Redskins, where they can’t even spell trust if you spotted them the t, the r, the u, the s, and the t.

After all, no one seems to blame Alex Ovechkin or Bradley Beal for falling short.

But that doesn’t explain the vitriol toward Kirk Cousins (how about that — a Kirk Cousins reference in a Nationals column) for the Redskins’ failures the last three seasons, while head coach Jay Gruden gets a pass.

Maybe it is time to start holding Harper — who is likely on the way out of town in the final year of his contract — accountable for this team’s missed opportunities. Maybe, instead of the question being raised about the Nationals failure to capitalize on Harper’s presence on the roster here, the question should be about Harper’s failure to lift this team past the first round. Or Anthony Rendon and his .232 batting average and .317 on base percentage in 14 playoff games. Or Trea Turner and his three hits in 21 at bats against the Cubs last October. Or Max Scherzer and the eight earned runs surrendered in 19 postseason innings in Washington.

God bless Dave Martinez for his circle of trust. He has no choice but to trust his players.

That shouldn’t be a problem during the regular season. I trust that this Nats team will win 95 games or more this year, as others have before them. And Nats fans will be glad to be part of that circle of trust.

But those who sat in the dugout before Martinez have found out that the circle of trust can be very lonely in October.

Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes, Google Play and the reVolver podcast network.


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