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Bumpy road for Nationals manager leads to ‘beautiful place’

Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez raises the NLCS trophy after Game 4 of the baseball National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, in Washington. The Nationals won 7-4 to win the series 4-0. (Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)
Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez raises the NLCS trophy after Game 4 of the baseball National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, in Washington. The Nationals won 7-4 to win the series 4-0. (Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)
By Howard Fendrich Associated Press

WASHINGTON – Nationals manager Dave Martinez is an optimistic sort, a live-in-the-moment guy who loves his mantras and his mottos, whether it’s telling players to “go 1-0 today” or to “stay in the fight.”

Rough as things were when Washington was 19-31 and people were wondering whether Martinez was in over his head and might get fired, he never wavered. Just as important, neither did the support he received from GM Mike Rizzo and team ownership.

And worried as Martinez was – as anyone would be – when his heart acted up during a game in September, leading to a hospital stay, he’s able to laugh about it now. He jokes that each game qualifies as a cardiac stress test. He points out that he needs to try to avoid booze, on doctor’s orders, during all of those clubhouse celebrations NL wild-card Washington has enjoyed on the way to the World Series, which begins Tuesday against the Houston Astros or New York Yankees.

So it made perfect sense that this is what Martinez said when he was given a chance to address a full stadium and television audience this week after a 7-4 victory completed a sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Championship Series: “Often, bumpy roads lead to beautiful places, and this is a beautiful place.”

Moments later, referring to his players, Martinez added: “These guys cured my heart, and my heart feels great right now.”

For all of the players, and there are many, who deserve credit for contributing to this season’s tremendous turnaround, including the current 16-2 run – the Nationals are the fourth club in major league history to go from 12 games under .500 to the Fall Classic – the 55-year-old called “Davey” by many gets his fair share of kudos for helping steer Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Anthony Rendon and everyone else from where they were in May to this point in October.

“I have had a lot of managers, obviously, and they all come into spring training, and say they’re going to stay this way no matter what: ‘We’re going to be here for you. It’s going to be us. We don’t care what anyone says.’ And then as soon as stuff goes bad, every manager has pretty much kind of thrown that out the window and sort of gone into self-preservation mode, where Davey, honestly, has stayed the same way,” said Ryan Zimmerman, in his 15th season with the Nationals.

“He’s positive every day, his energy,” Zimmerman said. “He always trusts his players and has his players’ backs.”

Hired to replace Dusty Baker before last season after two NL East titles and immediate playoff exits, Martinez did not have a successful start.

First came his rookie year of 2018, with a much-mocked spring training visit by a couple of camels – intended to help the Nationals “get over the hump” (get it?!) – and an 82-80 record.

Then came early 2019.

“A lot of teams could’ve folded. A lot of teams, the clubhouse would have been fractured,” Rizzo said. “But Davey held this thing together.”

Nationals owner Mark Lerner’s mindset after those first 50 games?

“How can you not think the season was in trouble?” Lerner said. “But it never crossed my mind, one time, to make any changes with Davey or Mike. It just wasn’t going to happen. We have too much confidence in Davey and his intelligence as a manager. We knew at some point he was going to shine. And he did.”

It began with a confidence and stay-in-the-moment steadiness.

It included changes in the team’s preparation.

“The first month and a half, we were bad defensively. We were bad on the bases. We were giving away three or four outs a game. We were giving the other team three or four outs a game. It had to stop,” Rizzo said. “Davey made a mandate: We were taking mandatory BP, we were taking mandatory infield practice, until we got things together.”

And it peaked with Martinez’s all-the-right-moves postseason so far: using starters in relief, picking the proper pinch hitters, making Zimmerman an everyday player.

Then, during a Sept. 15 game at Atlanta, Martinez felt pain in his chest.

“Scary,” said Martinez, who played 16 years in the majors. “Real scary.”

But a few days after a heart procedure, he was back in the dugout, ready to go.

The biggest difference since returning? He spends more time sitting during games, trying to keep his heart rate down.

“They keep telling me how much they want to play for me,” Martinez said about his players. “And I tell them it’s not about me. It’s about us. Just play for us.”

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