- - Monday, May 7, 2018

When the Nationals began their first homestand of the 2018 season, Dave Martinez said he expected to have fun in the home opener, specifically, and his rookie managerial season, in general.

The scoreboard didn’t cooperate that day (Stephen Strasburg took the loss against the New York Mets’ Jacob deGrom) and neither did the injury bug (outfielder Adam Eaton’s awkward slide forced him to the disabled list a few days later).

It was the beginning of a pattern.

DL stints soon followed for outfielder Brian Goodwin and third baseman Anthony Rendon. Victories became scarce. The Nats were 4-2 entering that homestand, 7-9 when they departed. They remained below .500 upon their return to D.C. and promptly lost two games against Arizona to fall to 11-16.

Martinez contributed to a 10-inning loss with a glaring rookie mistake, calling for reliever Adam Austin before the Diamondbacks announced their pinch-hitter, a gaffe that contributed to Arizona’s winning run.



“I completely take ownership to that,” Martinez told reporters afterward. “It will never happen again because I will make sure I look right at (the pinch-hitter) and say, ‘Is he in the game?’”

It was another one-run game with the Nats on the wrong end, dropping their record to 1-8 in such affairs. The offense was scraping along, increasing the stress and workload of a thin bullpen. The NL East leaders were six games ahead and the division was shaping up as much more competitive than the last two seasons.

Suffice it say the first month wasn’t much fun, not for the skipper or his team.

But everyone left Nationals Park Sunday on a much happier note than the previous getaway day. Wilmer Difo’s walk-off single capped a 4-3 comeback against Philadelphia on a day when Max Scherzer’s effort nearly was for naught. The Nats went 7-3 during the homestand, providing plenty of positive reflections as they headed to San Diego.

“It’s nice,” Martinez told reporters. “We get a happy flight now.”

Scherzer struck out 15 and is eying another Cy Young award. Rendon brought the Nats within striking distance with a two-run, eighth-inning single. Key reserves Matt Adams (second in homers and RBI) and Howie Kendrick (team-high 11 doubles) continue to produce in their extended time.

Martinez has bounced back and exhibited a deft managerial touch. He moved first baseman Ryan Zimmerman to No. 2 in the batting order on April 28 and the first baseman responded with a two-run homer in his second at-bat.

But Martinez really found something last Tuesday when he experimented at the top and bottom of the order. He inserted outfielder Bryce Harper at leadoff and Difo in the No. 9 hole. In the following six games, Harper hit four homers and drove in nine runs while Difo built a slash line of .529/.652/1.000.

The move had a two-fold effect. Harper began seeing more pitches after coming within three walks of Barry Bonds’ record for March/April (39 in 2004). And Difo became a de factor leadoff man ahead of Harper once the lineup turned over. He fattened his batting average on a diet of fastballs as pitchers were loath to face Harper with a runner aboard.

Shuffling his lineup in such fashion demonstrated Martinez’s fearless commitment to outside-the-box thinking. Putting Harper atop the lineup isn’t unprecedented; manager Davey Johnson did it for 16 games in 2013 and Harper rewarded him with .317/.419/.603, including four homers and four doubles.

But that was before Harper won an MVP award and entered his walk year as one of the game’s most feared sluggers. Plenty of veteran managers would’ve hesitated to put 2018 Harper in the No. 1 hole, let alone a first-time skipper off to a rocky start.

However, the move made perfect sense to Martinez.

“They’re not going to walk him, and if they do it’s not intentionally,” he told reporters last week. “We tell him every day, ‘Be ready to hit from the first pitch, be ready to hit.’ And he’s doing that and he’s taking some really good swings.”

A good swing describes the team’s mood as Eaton, second baseman Daniel Murphy and outfielder Brian Goodwin languish on the DL. Harper jokingly referred to the Nats as the “Syracuse SkyChiefs,” a nod to several reinforcements who began the season with Washington’s Triple-A club.

Harper said once the full lineup is back, the fun should really begin. And he’s not talking about touches like Martinez having camels at spring training or a mariachi band in the clubhouse on Cinco de Mayo as Rendon returned from the DL.

Those were great moves and the manager has more in store. But few things could be more entertaining than winning seven of every 10 games.

Martinez will have a blast if that continues.

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

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