WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - His position along the first base line, with 70-some others in Nationals uniforms standing to his right and only home plate to his left, was unfamiliar. Davey Martinez had never stood at the head of the line for a national anthem before, and this was a particularly poignant anthem, with Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School senior Angelique Meneses singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” one week after 17 people were killed at her high school in nearby Parkland.
“Incredible,” Martinez said. “I mean, she did a great job. Very touching moment. And I even told her: ‘You were incredible. Great job.’ “
The 53-year-old’s managerial debut began in unusual and emotional fashion. But by the time the Nationals’ 3-2 loss to the Astros in both clubs’ Grapefruit League opener was over, a sense of familiarity had comforted Martinez.
“It’s funny, once I got to the dugout after the anthem, it was just another spring training game,” he said. “Making moves. Trying to get guys in and out. But it was fun.”
Martinez’s actual managerial debut, 34 days from now in Cincinnati, will be a far more momentous occasion. But you have to start somewhere, and an 80-degree Friday afternoon in front of 4,271 fans at FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches wasn’t such a bad place to start.
Martinez wasn’t exactly fielding the kind of lineup he expects come the regular season. No projected starters played today, and only Matt Adams, Howie Kendrick and Wilmer Difo were assured of even making the club.
But these early spring training games aren’t about the regulars. They’re about the backups and the role players and the youngsters who are trying to make an impression now so management will remember them later when a need arises.
So Martinez spent his afternoon watching Tommy Milone toss two scoreless innings, Chris Dominguez and Jose Marmolejos deliver RBI singles, Victor Robles double, go first-to-third on a single and make a diving catch in center field, and Wander Suero strike out the side in relief.
“The boys played well,” the skipper said. “We had good effort. We had some good at-bats. Good defense. Really good defense. So I was happy.”
Robles was the shining star of the afternoon, despite sitting the first four innings. Once he entered as a pinch-hitter in the top of the fifth, the organization’s top prospect made sure everyone noticed him.
Robles drew a walk in his first plate appearance, then went first-to-third on Marmolejos’ single to center. He had the crowd oohing and aahing in the bottom of the sixth when he ranged far to his right to make a backhanded, diving stab of Kyle Tucker’s sinking liner. And then two innings later the 20-year-old led off the eighth with a double to left field to cap an impressive spring debut.
“I mean, he’s a good one,” Martinez said. “I’m going to enjoy watching him play this spring. He brings it every day and he’s got a lot of energy.”
Robles is going to have to keep doing that all spring, and probably hope that something goes wrong with one of the Nationals’ starting outfielders, to force his way onto the 25-man roster. But Martinez knows the kid is going to be playing in Washington sometime in the near future, and he wants him to be fully prepared when that day comes.
“I want him to be himself, and I really want him to hone in on the little things of the game,” the manager said. “Like working walks, like he did today. Getting a good jump on the bases. Going first-to-third every time he can. Going on balls in the dirt, passed balls and stuff like that. Just hone in on the little things.
“And I told him, ‘You’re going to play here for a very long time. Just concentrate on the little things and have fun.’ He’s got all the tools, and he shows it and he loves to play.”