The Washington Nationals won just 19 of their first 50 games. They were beset by injuries. Their bullpen never really settled in.
But manager Dave Martinez stayed positive, kept improvising and somehow guided the Nationals on an epic run that carried through the wild-card and their NLDS series against the heavily-favored Los Angeles Dodgers.
“I did finally last night, got to process everything,” Martinez said during a conference call with reporters on Thursday. “The boys are just relentless. They never quit. We get on a plane. We're heading to St. Louis to play for a championship. Tell the boys, just keep it going. We've done this before. We understand how to get back into that groove and you see it every day with these guys. They're a lot of fun, a lot of fun to watch, a lot of fun in the dugout. Let's just keep it going.”
While the Nationals rose up this season against long odds, the Philadelphia Phillies crashed and burned after investing a fortune in Washington expatriate Bryce Harper. And while Martinez is basking in the NLCS limelight, Phillies manager Gabe Kapler is looking for his next job.
So, yeah, managers can make a really big difference in a team's success.
“I've been saying it all year how he's been the same guy,” Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman told MLB.com. “I’ve had a lot of managers, obviously, and they all come into Spring Training, saying they're going to stay this way no matter what. They’re going to be here for us, it's going to be us, we don't care what anyone says.
“As soon as stuff goes bad, every manager has pretty much thrown that out the window and gone into self-preservation mode. Where Davey honestly has stayed the same. He's positive every day, same energy. He always trusts his players and has his player’s back. I don’t think it’s any different this year. Even when we started as poorly as we did, he stayed the same.”
You could say the same about Cardinals manager Mike Shildt, who has total buy-in from team leaders Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina and the rest of the squad.
Here is how some pundits see the series:
Emma Baccallieri, SI.com: "The drought is meant to end with a moment of catharsis—resolution, release, refreshment. It’s meant to be clear-cut. There’s no question of what has to come next: It’s over. The rain has come. The Nationals’ drought has ended. They have—at last, after a collection of tortured and accursed tries—won a postseason series. (Sure, they won the wild-card game, but that’s a round, rather than a series; it was its own demon.) Yet there’s hardly space for catharsis here: There’s still plenty of work in front of them. The 2019 Nationals’ path to the NLCS did not require flipping the script so much as it did picking up the pages of the script and gleefully shredding them before tossing the result into a wind machine calibrated for maximum devastation. This was not a team whose success was assured. It was not a team whose postseason victory seemed clear, let alone likely. The Nationals’ teams from the better part of the last decade had established a certain model—enjoy a strong season, with every reason to logically expect a solid chance to advance in the playoffs, only to crumble in stunningly painful fashion at the start of October, each time without fail. There was no reason to believe that this dynamic was somehow guaranteed to continue from one season to the next. But it was hard not to feel—in some place beyond rationality or numbers or sanity—that this was the case. Until, finally, it wasn’t . . . A Max Scherzer-Stephen Strasburg-Patrick Corbin rotation is the foundation of a force of nature—no matter how bad the ‘pen is behind them. (And, please, let’s give some credit where due to Daniel Hudson and Sean Doolittle.) Anthony Rendon has had a season that, in many years, would be worthy of an MVP. Have you seen Juan Soto? And that’s not even to touch on the fact that postseason baseball is a fundamentally different animal that offers far more room for wild chance than anyone would like to think.
Bradford Doolittle, ESPN.com: "Back in 2006, Wainwright was a rookie reliever for the Cardinals. When Jason Isringhausen was injured in September, Wainwright took over as closer, pitched 9⅔ scoreless innings in the postseason, saved four games and got the final outs of the NLCS and World Series. His catcher, of course, was Molina, and if you want a good story to root for, you can do worse than seeing if these two warhorses -- the beloved heart and soul of the franchise for so long -- can get one more ring. Both came up big in the NLDS. Wainwright tossed 7⅔ scoreless innings in his Game 3 start, and manager Mike Shildt showed so much faith in him that he let him throw 120 pitches -- maybe too much faith, as Andrew Miller had to rescue him from a bases-loaded jam. Wainwright had his curveball working to perfection against the Braves, throwing it a season-high 47.5% of the time. That's a big weapon. Molina's impact is mostly leadership and defense at this point in his career. He did have two clutch RBIs in Game 4 against the Braves, but that snapped a streak of 15 consecutive postseason games without an RBI. He hit .270 this year and will battle to put the ball in play, so he's always a tough out."
Gabe Lacques, USA Today: "At 38, Wainwright is not the dominant dude who took star turns as a closer and ace on Cardinals World Series championship teams in 2006 and 2011. Yet he proved in Game 3 of the NLDS that he can still carry them when it counts, holding Atlanta to four hits over 7 ⅔ innings and 120 pitches. Now, he’ll match up at least once with Scherzer, and with Cards ace (Jack) Flaherty perhaps neutralized by Strasburg in Game 3, Wainwright will probably need to outpitch Scherzer at some point or St. Louis is in trouble . . . It’s tempting to call this series a coin flip, but then again, coin flips are relatively easy to forecast. All signs point to a tightly-pitched, well played and possibly low-scoring series. It’s hard to side against the Nationals’ mojo, particularly after they’ve run off three wins in elimination games already. But the Cardinals put together an excellent pitching plan against the Braves and have the horses to cool the Nationals’ simmering bats. Throw in superior marks in the bullpen and defensively, and it’s enough little things that add up to the smallest of advantages."
Mike Petriello, MLB.com: "St. Louis's Jack Flaherty was one of baseball's most elite pitchers in the second half of the season, and he pitched effectively in two postseason starts, but after throwing 104 pitches in Game 5 despite the huge Cardinal lead, he won't be available until NLCS Game 3. In his stead, St. Louis will have Miles Mikolas start Game 1, while Adam Wainwright will get the call in Game 2. And while all have their pluses -- Wainwright in particular delivered a vintage start in NLDS Game 3 -- none is Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg or Patrick Corbin. The rotation has been Washington's strength all year, and that won't change in this series, even if they're starting their No. 4 -- Anibal Sanchez -- in Game 1 . . . Conversely, as you've surely seen, the Washington bullpen remains a huge sore spot. It's not entirely fair right now to point out that they had the 10th-worst bullpen ERA of any team since the divisional era began in 1969 -- not all of those pitchers are active on the playoff roster, of course. But they do have a 6.63 mark in the playoffs, and if the Nationals trusted any of their relievers aside from Sean Doolittle or Daniel Hudson, you wouldn't see all of their ace starters in relief so often, and that's harder to do in a seven-game series compared to a five-gamer. Now, we couldn't necessarily call the St. Louis bullpen a strength, either, because it's not, really. Carlos Martínez walked quite the tightrope in the Braves series, and Andrew Miller hardly looks like the dominant relief ace we saw in Cleveland a few years ago. The best Cardinals relief arms right now might be John Brebbia and Giovanny Gallegos, and look, let's be honest here: Neither relief group is great. The Nationals relievers are just a whole lot less great."
“We’ve played great baseball throughout. I think the fact that we were playing nip-and-tuck, playoffs-caliber games since late May helped us prepare ourselves for these types of atmospheres. The leadership group on this team is second to none. I think a tip of the cap goes to Davey Martinez and the coaching staff for keeping this group galvanized and together, when it easily could’ve splintered and gone the wrong way.”
• Washington Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, to MLB.com.