- - Monday, September 30, 2019

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Manager Dave Martinez laid the groundwork for the 2019 Washington Nationals last year. It’s what helped him – and his team – survive an abysmal start this season and eventually capture a playoff berth.

The Nationals were coming off back-to-back first-round flameouts when Martinez replaced Dusty Baker – who himself inherited a club that failed to advance in its two previous postseason appearances.

Washington’s reputation was such that being 0-4 all-time in National League Division Series shared equal billing with its four NL East titles in six years.

Sensing a team under pressure last year, in his first spring training as a manager, Martinez sought to replace the steam with a cool breeze. He instilled a light and loose tone, heavy on fun. There were team relay races, walk-off practices and golf-chipping contests. There was a Circle of Trust, a la “Meet the Parents,” including skits and funny speeches.

Of all the gimmicks Martinez implemented, none was more noteworthy than the three camels. He brought them to camp so his team could face the elephant in the clubhouse, the Nationals‘ inability to get “over the hump” and win a playoff series.



“My intentions were to bring the hump to us – the proverbial hump question that we all try to answer,” Martinez told reporters that day in February 2018. “For me, as I thought about it, the hump is every day. And I want them to embrace it, not fear it. And have fun with it.

“We all know why we’re here.”

The answer, then and now, remains the same. Ownership and general manager Mike Rizzo confirmed as much upon hiring Martinez, and the rookie manager bought into the thought process during his introductory news conference. “We’re not here just to win a playoff game,” he said. “We’re here to win the World Series.”

No pressure, there, huh?

Martinez’s attempts to make the Nationals an easy-going, laid-back bunch didn’t bear fruit last year, as they failed to reach the playoffs and barely topped .500 (82-80). When his second season featured 31 losses in the first 50 games, questions about his suitability for the job were rampant.

Staying loose and having fun doesn’t quite jibe with a .380 winning percentage.

But Martinez and the Nationals pulled it off until consistent victories made the task simple.

The skipper can never receive enough credit for keeping morale high while losses piled up, leading observers to call for his dismissal and a fire sale. Newcomers like Gerardo Parra, Asdrubal Cabrera and Brian Dozier helped by providing levity and veteran savvy, complementing the youthful exuberance of Juan Soto and Victor Robles. After faltering in early September, the Nationals ripped through the season’s most intense segment, winning their last eight games and 12 of their last 15.

Considering that several prognostications tabbed Washington for the World Series, winning a wild card could be viewed as underachieving. Then again, reaching the playoffs at all is a massive accomplishment for a club that was a dozen games under .500 in late May.

“No matter how you start, the objective is to get to the postseason,” Martinez told reporters Sunday after the regular-season finale. “The boys did that. We can all sit here and say it was ugly in the beginning, but they stepped up and endured a lot, and we’re going to the postseason.”

That typically would force the franchise to face its NLDS demons.

But there’s no guarantee of even accepting that challenge, not with the red-hot Milwaukee Brewers (13-5 down the stretch) in town for Tuesday’s winner-take-all wild card game. Washington clinched home-field advantage on Friday, which historically has offered no edge: The Nationals are 4-4 in playoff games on the road.

They’re 3-8 in playoff games at Nationals Park.

Washington can begin rewriting its history by beating Milwaukee. That would qualify as advancing in the postseason – a first for the Nationals – even though it wouldn’t meet the standard for winning a playoff series. They’d have to topple the two-time defending NL champion Los Angeles Dodgers to remove that unwelcome asterisk.

Given everything they’ve been through, the Nationals are more than capable of fulfilling preseason expectations. They’re positioned to deliver a return on their manager’s investment, the months devoted to building a relaxed and resilient culture.

However, Tuesday’s matchup doesn’t represent the obstacle Martinez had in mind when he brought three camels to spring training last season. The wild card game is a start.

But it’s also just a hindrance before the hump.

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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