Nationals riding high, but will it last against the powerhouse Dodgers?
WASHINGTON — It was an awfully close shave.
Not the Washington Nationals’ stunning, one-run, come-from-behind wild-card win against Josh Hader and the Milwaukee Brewers. Although that was close, too. The shave in question was the one on Dave Martinez’s face on Tuesday afternoon.
“I screwed up,” said Washington’s manager, explaining why his trademark five o’clock shadow looked more like noon. “The guard on my clipper was off on one side, and I just went, oh no. I had to lower it a bit.”
In other words, it wasn’t some playoff superstition that Martinez had adopted during his decade as bench coach under Joe Maddon in Tampa Bay and Chicago. It wasn’t a wild-card whim that the Nats’ skipper woke up thinking about. It was an accident, plain and simple. But Martinez, who forever preaches about staying in the here and now, about going 1-0 today, was ready to roll with it. Maybe even hold on to it, depending on the outcome of the NL wild-card game that was about to take place.
“Let’s see what happens today,” he said with a chuckle.
What happened was this: Ace Max Scherzer, starting despite a rocky finish to an injury-marred season, walked the leadoff hitter and gave up two home runs to the first six batters as the Nats went down 3-0. Stephen Strasburg, coming out of the bullpen for the first time since his freshman year in college, was dominant in three innings of relief. The Nationals, down 3-1 heading into the eighth inning and facing All-Star reliever Hader, grinded out three runs thanks to a huge bases-loaded knock from 20-year-old Juan Soto (with an assist from rookie Brewers outfielder Trent Grisham, who charged in too hard on Soto’s single and allowed Anthony Rendon to score the go-ahead run from first). Oh, and Washington closer Daniel Hudson pitched a scoreless ninth to end Milwaukee’s season and, at least for one night, make everyone in D.C. forget about just how horrible the Nats’ bullpen was this season.
But perhaps most importantly, what happened was that, unlike what transpired with his razor earlier in the day, Martinez didn’t screw up. Quite the opposite.
On an unseasonably warm October night, Martinez pushed all the right buttons. He lifted Scherzer after five innings and only 77 pitches, replacing him with a guy who had never thrown a single inning of relief in 242 professional appearances. In that fateful eighth inning, he sent up pinch hitter Michael Taylor to face Hader. Even though Taylor had spent most of the season at Double-A after being demoted, and even though he had veteran Ryan Zimmerman available on the bench, Martinez liked that Taylor had reached base twice in two career trips against Hader. Two batters after Taylor reached for a third time (on a hit by pitch), Martinez used Zimmerman, who blooped a two-out single to center that kept the inning alive and helped set the stage for Soto’s big hit.
Which helped set the stage for Washington’s second goggle-wearing, liquid-spraying celebration in less than a week. It’s the first time the Nationals have ever popped bottles after advancing in the postseason.
“You can’t really look at the past, you can’t really look at the future,” said Strasburg, when asked to compare the feeling now to the feeling two years ago, when he was dominant in two starts against the Chicago Cubs during a division series that Washington lost, its fourth playoff series defeat in four tries. “The thing about the playoffs, especially the situation we’re in, you can’t really predict what’s going to happen. You can’t look into a crystal ball. You just gotta enjoy the moment and be present.”
In other words, let’s see what happens today.
It pretty much has been Martinez’s motto all year. When the Nats suffered a four-game sweep to the New York Mets and were 12 games under .500, and Martinez was this close to being canned (if you believe everything that sports-talk callers tell you), he didn’t change his tune. When they rebounded to go 57-24 over their next 81 games and take a commanding wild-card lead heading into September, he didn’t change his tune. When his team went cold down the stretch and nearly coughed up said wild-card lead, he didn’t change his tune.
Let’s see what happens today.
Because of what happened Tuesday, when Washington won its ninth game in a row, Martinez and the Nationals now have a date with the Dodgers on Thursday … and Friday and Sunday. And maybe Monday and Wednesday after that, depending on how exactly the National League Division Series unfolds.
“It’s going to be tough,” shortstop Trea Turner said of the daunting task that lies ahead, wherein Washington will face an L.A. juggernaut that won a franchise-record 106 games this season to complement its current of run of seven straight division titles. “But I think if there’s a team that’s ever been ready to face some adversity, it’s this one right here.”
As Turner sat at the podium and delivered his postgame comments, he wore a helmet. It wasn’t a batter’s helmet. Or a catcher’s helmet. Instead, it appeared to be a soccer goalie’s helmet. Made of white leather with red writing, it bore the logo of Turner’s alma mater (NC State), and it had been sitting in his locker for months.
“I did not order this or receive this within the last week,” said Turner, his voice nasal from the goggles that were still strapped over his helmet and pinching his nose. “It’s been there for a while.”
In fact, according to Turner, the lid had been in his cubby for about four months. Ever since the Nationals were teetering on the brink of extinction. On Tuesday, after his team came back from the brink against Hader and the Brewers, he finally decided to strap the thing on. Because why not?
“I didn’t plan anything,” Turner said. “It just happened.”
For all we know, maybe Turner was fibbing. Maybe it was the bubbly talking and the truth is that the helmet was a premeditated prop, procured expressly for the purposes of poppin’ bottles. For that matter, maybe Martinez was fibbing too. Maybe his close shave wasn’t an accident at all, but rather a contrived coif meant to shake things up and help the Nats exorcise their postseason demons.
For what it’s worth, those demons haven’t been fully exorcised yet. Because one wild-card win doesn’t erase the sting of four NLDS losses. But it’s a start.
“We vowed that we won’t quit,” said Martinez, seemingly summing up his team’s Tuesday and its season in one fell swoop. “I told the boys, I promise you, stay with it, don’t quit, this will turn around. And it did. And here we are today.”
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