- - Tuesday, September 17, 2019

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

We are nearing the last chapter of the Washington Nationals’ 2019 season — which could wind up a fairy tale. Or a horror story.

The fairy tale would be about a bunch of superstars who inexplicably stumbled through the first two months of the season to a 19-31 record, prompting calls for manager Dave Martinez’s job and fueling delusional talk of trading future Hall of Fame pitcher Max Scherzer for “prospects.”

But in this inspirational story, the stars slowly but surely, over the course of a 162-game season, remember how to win, thanks in part to the heart of their loyal manager, Martinez, who never wavered in support of his team and showed players how to stick together during fractured times.

A team that looked like an also-ran early on becomes Cinderella — leading the major leagues with a 59-28 record over the next 88 games into September. And, though Cinderella finishes the regular season ball without reeling in the NL East division-leading Atlanta Braves, she seems to be a team primed to wear the glass slipper in the MLB postseason.

That was the fairy tale in the making.



There’s another ending in the works, though, one that doesn’t end with “happily ever after.”

In the Stephen King version of the Nationals’ season, the slump to start the year is bookended by an even uglier collapse at the end. Cinderella doesn’t get the glass slipper, or make the playoffs or even hang on to Prince Charming — a.k.a. MVP candidate and future free agent Anthony Rendon.

That’s the nightmare.

It all comes down to the final 12 games — the series finale Wednesday against the NL Central division-leading St. Louis Cardinals; three games in Miami against the Marlins, then eight games at home — five against the Philadelphia Phillies and a three-game series with the Cleveland Indians, who may be fighting for their own AL wild-card spot in that final weekend.

The Nationals, after going 3-10 in their last 13 games before Tuesday’s night contest against the Cardinals, are barely hanging on to a place in the wild-card race with the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers. Somehow, geek websites like Fangraphs gave Washington a 91% chance of making the postseason.

If, at the end of this season, the Nationals will have survived with a chance to play in a wild-card playoff game, the odds they will have overcome are far more than that. They’ll have done so with the health of their manager in question and a bullpen without one single shutdown arm to call on.

Martinez, 54, left the Nationals dugout Sunday while his team was on its way to a 7-0 win over the Braves at Nationals Park.

He wasn’t feeling well and was taken to a local hospital for testing. That has since developed into a hospital stay that included a cardiac catheterization, a test to determine how strong your heart is.

General manager Mike Rizzo told reporters Tuesday that Martinez is back at his D.C. home and no further tests are needed. Rizzo said he expects Martinez to be cleared to travel, but won’t be heading to St. Louis.

When Martinez was hospitalized, I thought back to June, when he told me before a game he did a workout that consisted of turning over a truck tire 100 times — sort of like how managing these Nationals this season has been. Turning that tire over day after day takes a toll.

I also thought of the day before Martinez had to leave for the hospital — the day that Atlanta’s Charlie Culberson was hit in the face by a Fernando Rodney pitch and suffered multiple facial fractures.

Martinez was upset that home plate umpire Tim Timmons described a scene in which, while Culberson was on the ground being treated by trainers, Martinez called the umpire over and asked him to check to see if Culberson offered on a bunt attempt.

Martinez wouldn’t tell reporters what the conversation was, only to say that it “wasn’t the way it was portrayed to be” by Timmons. The manager was reportedly visibly upset by the situation, and told reporters, “The last thing I wanted to do was be a jackass.”

Twenty-four hours later, Martinez, well-respected throughout the game, was on his way to the hospital.

Of course, the top priority here is the health of Martinez. But it’s difficult to imagine Washington fighting through these final 12 games without their emotional leader.

After Monday night’s 4-2 loss to St. Louis, starter Stephen Strasburg, who struggled early but managed to keep the game at 2-2 after five innings, told reporters, “It’s important for us to stick together.”

That is the story Dave Martinez has been writing all year.

⦁ Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday and Sunday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

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