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Martinez takes different approach to managing

by Barry Svrluga The Washington Post | March 19, 2023 at 1:00 a.m.
Dave Martinez coaches up Nationals position players during spring training workouts. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Jonathan Newton

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The job Dave Martinez took in the fall of 2017 was clear: Win a World Series. The job he is staring at in the spring of 2023 is ... well, we'll say, it's different. How can you downshift -- mentally, professionally, pridefully?

"Honestly, to me, two things that really come out of every day," Martinez said the other day, a calming candle burning on his office desk. "I always tell myself, 'Hey you got to stick to the process.' No doubt. It's teaching now, and I love to teach.

"The second one is patience. You got to have a lot of patience."

Does he?

"Yeah," and he sighed. "To a certain extent."

In 2018, Martinez went 82-80 in his first year managing the Washington Nationals -- and was deemed a failure. Should he go 82-80 in the year that's ahead, he'd be a magician. He won a World Series in 2019. He lost 107 games last summer. He is the same person with the same title he had when he was hired -- and a completely different task before him.

How do you evaluate the job he does?

"For me, it's seeing what's transpiring," Martinez said. "People who have been here, who've been watching, they'll come up to me and say, 'Davey, what you're doing, the positive feedback, the fundamentals, how you go about your day -- we love it.' That, to me, is important."

But it's also not enough. For this season to be a success, the Nationals who open the season March 30 at Nationals Park against Atlanta can't be the same Nationals who close the season Oct. 1 in Atlanta. They have to get better. Not in record -- though that would help. But in fundamentals. In more fully developed skill sets. In meaningful experience. In flat-out productivity. In ways both subtle and obvious.

"The only way to grow sometimes is by making mistakes, is by going through tough times," said Tim Bogar, Martinez's bench coach who also works alongside Gary DiSarcina in coaching the Nats' infielders. "We all grow from our trials, in my opinion. So that's part of it. They're going to have successes and they'll grow from those as well.

"But the bottom line is: It's really hard to say they're not succeeding if we have one less run than the other team sometimes. Sometimes."

Remember 2019, the 19-31 start, and Martinez's pledge to go 1-0 every day? It articulated a mentality and became a mantra worthy of being printed on T-shirts.

But what happens if you know -- realistically -- that you're going to go 0-1 more days than you'll go 1-0? Perhaps many more?

"There are hundreds of opportunities to go 1-0 every day," Bogar said.

"It's a win when MacKenzie Gore or Josiah Gray is getting 21 outs in a game," Martinez said. "It's a win where CJ Abrams gave himself up to get a guy over. It's a win when someone says, 'Hey, I'm not feeling good at the plate. This guy's pretty tough, I can bunt for a hit.' To me, that's a win. And then, they start to multiply."

There's the standard, then. During last year's last-place slog that cratered with the trade of Juan Soto to San Diego, the Nationals played about a month of absolutely farcical baseball. They threw away pickoff attempts. They had two runners thrown out at third -- on the same play. Their best defensive play of one week -- or maybe a month -- was center fielder Victor Robles's diving stop of an errant throw to second.

The Nats eventually cleaned it up. Now, with the talented Abrams at shortstop and Luis Garcia over at second -- among other changes -- they should be in better position to play clean baseball. That's what can be judged just by flipping on the TV or filing through the turnstiles. There will, though, be elements of Martinez's job that we cannot see.

"We evaluate him by how the plan is being implemented," General Manager Mike Rizzo said. "We talk two, three times every day about what we're trying to accomplish this week, this month, this year. I think you have to measure how he's doing by the day-to-day interactions you have. And that might not all be on the field. It might be on the plane. It might be at a dinner."

But just because the expectations in the standings aren't what they were in Washington for the better part of a decade doesn't mean there shouldn't be a standard. Does Abrams learn from that teaching? Does Garcia? Does catcher Keibert Ruiz?

"If the question is: How's Dave Martinez doing?" Rizzo said. "He's doing terrific. He's doing everything we want him to do."

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