As the Nationals close out the regular season and prepare for the National League Division Series, the focus of fans’ attention turns away from the players on the field and into the dugout and manager Dusty Baker.
The 68-year-old skipper has already taken an injury-riddled squad through the gauntlet of a major league regular season to an unprecedented second straight division title, and now must keep his players sharp, yet healthy, as he guides them through the next two weeks. But he accepts all the challenges he’s overcome so far this season, and all that lie ahead, without knowing if he’ll keep his job next year.
We all know the demon that plagues the Nats - and Baker: The team has never won a postseason series, and the manager has never won a World Series. Before we address what they haven’t done, let’s take a look at what they’ve accomplished.
When they clinched their second straight NL East title a week ago, the Nats and Baker joined elite company. Washington hasn’t seen back-to-back championships in baseball since 1924 and 1925, when Hall of Famer Bucky Harris managed his Nats to consecutive American League pennants. The city has seen just one other championship, the 1933 AL pennant. Since the Nats moved to town in 2005 following the 34-year baseball drought, they’ve won division crowns in 2012 and 2014, only to come up empty in 2013 and 2015.
All that changed this season under Baker, whose laid-back, player-friendly style has the clubhouse firmly behind him. He’s won the respect of his players by doing it with a team that could have every excuse not to repeat. Injuries have hurt lots of teams this season, including the Nats’ division rivals in New York and Atlanta. Yet the Nats have won while enduring serious injuries to four members of the opening day lineup - including the entire starting outfield. They’re back on top after three members of the pitching rotation missed multiple starts, with Joe Ross lost for the season in July.
The Nats are near the top of the league in nearly every offensive and pitching category because nearly every player Baker has subbed in for an injured starter has come through. Matt Albers, Wilmer Difo, Brian Goodwin, Matt Grace, Howie Kendrick, Adam Lind and Michael A. Taylor are having career years because Baker not only trusted them, but put them in situations where they could thrive.
In fact, this could be the best Nats team ever, and if the team wins 10 of its last 14 games, it will have a 99-win record to back it up. Think that’s a stretch? Nine of those games are on the road, where the Nats are 47-25, best in the NL before Sunday night’s game against the Dodgers. Think the Nats cruised through a terrible division to win their title? They came into Sunday night’s game with a .645 winning percentage against the NL West - better than the Dodgers’ .510 - and a .567 mark against the NL Central - close to the Cubs .578. Again, that’s a credit to Baker, who has his club prepared to play anyone, anywhere, with whatever personnel have been on hand.
So with at least 89 victories to add to his resume this year, Baker now has 1,854. Only 13 managers in the history of the game have won more, and he’s the winningest active manager in the game. He’s won more than contemporaries Bruce Bochy, Mike Scioscia, Buck Showalter and Terry Francona. He’s won more than Hall of Famers Tommy Lasorda, Dick Williams, Clark Griffith and Earl Weaver. All except Griffith have managed World Series winners, but all have lost multiple World Series, and none had to manage in a division series.
So there’s still that postseason thing. Baker’s teams have, in fact, never won a World Series, and each of his previous clubs have lost after coming up short in potential closeout games. Those shortcomings will always be there, but the only way to rectify them is to keep returning to the postseason, and Baker has done that every season here.
When Baker was hired, it was reported that he wanted only a two-year contract because he wanted to prove he could win right away. That contract ends after this season, and there has been no word so far about a renewal. Perhaps Baker hasn’t asked for one because he still wants to prove himself. Perhaps the Nats haven’t offered one because they still haven’t made it past the division series. Perhaps both are waiting for the right time to announce one.
What’s certain is this: Baker is the best manager the Nats have ever had; better than Frank Robinson, Davey Johnson or Matt Williams. He’s better than anyone who managed in Washington since 1925. His story here is not finished, but it would be a shame if his career ends elsewhere.
Marty Niland blogs about the Nationals for D.C. Baseball History. Follow him on Twitter: @martyball98. His thoughts on the Nationals will appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.