PITTSBURGH — The airwaves in the nation’s capital on May 24 were abuzz with frustrated Washington Nationals fans calling for manager Dave Martinez to be fired.
Washington had been swept in four games by the Mets in New York and was a woeful 19-31.
Martinez was frustrated too, but he didn’t have time for the critics.
“I never paid attention,” Martinez said of his critics. “As a player, I never paid attention to it. I have a job to do. I focus on my job; the 25 players and staff, that is what I focus on.”
Martinez, in his second year with the Nationals, leaned on the players and coaches around him as he looked for ways to save a season.
“I always felt strongly about the veterans we had,” Martinez told The Washington Times, sitting at his desk in the visiting clubhouse at PNC Park. “The one thing I always tell them is we are not always going to be bad. We have to stick together. That is what makes good teams. We stuck together. I said ‘Just keep playing. Don’t give up.’ We did that.”
The Nationals rebounded in historic fashion. The last team to be 12 games under .500 and reach the .500 mark by July 1 was the Colorado Rockies in 2009.
Washington was 69-57 after blitzing the Pirates 11-1 here on Wednesday and trailed the first-place Atlanta Braves by six games in the National League East. The deficit was 10 games in late May.
The Nationals now held the top spot in the wild card race.
“I talked to the coaches a lot and tried to stay positive and keep working and keep coaching,” Martinez said in reflection. “When things go bad, the best thing to do is keep working and keep coaching.”
Infielder Asdrubal Cabrera hadn’t played for Martinez until the joined the Nationals on August 6. But the 33-year-old from Venezuela quickly learned from teammates that Martinez trusted his veterans.
“Absolutely. He lets us play the baseball,” said Cabrera, who was with the Nationals in the 2014 playoffs. “It makes you feel confident. This team is special.”
Martinez was born in New York and grew up in Florida, where he played in high school and college. Both of his parents are natives of Puerto Ricol and his favorite player as a child was Roberto Clemente, the late Pirates star from Puerto Rico who died in a plane crash in 1972 while on a mercy mission to earthquake victims in Nicaragua.
The 54-year-old Martinez visited the Clemente Museum in Pittsburgh earlier this week.
“My dad was big about talking about baseball and Latin players,” Martinez said.
The former outfielder/first baseman played 16 years in the majors and hit .276 with 91 homers while playing for nine teams from 1986 to 2001.
He became a bench coach with Tampa Bay in 2008 under manager Joe Maddon and had the same role under Maddon when the Chicago Cubs won the World Series in 2016.
Martinez had no managerial experience when he was hired by the Nationals before the 2018 season.
The team had let go of veteran skipper Dusty Baker even though he won two division titles in two years with the club.
Despite this year’s turnaround, Martinez is still taking heat from some fans and media. He took starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg out of the game Tuesday after he threw seven scoreless innings. The Pirates then scored four runs off the Washington bullpen in the eighth for a 4-1 victory. The Nationals, who open a series at the Cubs on Friday afternoon, had a bullpen ERA of 6.09 through Wednesday.
Martinez tries to keep communication open with his staff, which includes bench coach Chip Hale, pitching coach Paul Menhart and hitting coach Kevin Long. “He has the final say,” Menhart said of Martinez.
“I utilize my coaches,” Martinez said. “I value their opinions on a lot of things. I am going to each and every one of them, especially Paul talking about pitching and what he sees and what kind of moves he wants to make. At the end of the conversation, I make the final decision. Chip and I continually bounce ideas off each other during the game. I am close to all of those guys.”