As Baker joins Astros, Nats get ready to enter Bizarro World

The first time the Nationals take the field as defending World Series champions, they'll be facing the same Astros team they beat in Game 7 four months earlier, with one small exception: Houston's manager will be Dusty Baker.

No, we haven't been transported to a parallel universe, folks. We're still living right here on good old Earth 1. Even if it feels like this place has suddenly turned into Bizarro World.

Baker-Points-Gray-Sidebar.jpgThe Astros, who spent the ensuing weeks after losing Game 7 getting embroiled in one of the biggest scandals in baseball history, were forced to hire a new manager on the fly only days before pitchers and catchers start making their way to Florida. And after an extensive search that included several big-name candidates with prior experience, owner Jim Crane decided to go with perhaps the biggest name of all.

Yes, Dusty's back. And he's going to be reporting to the very same complex the Nationals call home all spring.

Can you say: "Awkward?"

Truth be told, it's going to be far more awkward for everyone who follows this saga from the outside than it is for those who are actually involved. Baker remains close with many Nationals players and team executives, and the respect goes both ways. He followed his former team the last two seasons and genuinely was happy for those guys when they finally got over the October hump and won their first championship.

But now the 70-year-old baseball icon is determined to get over his own October hump. Though he won a title as a player with the 1981 Dodgers, the one glaring hole on his managerial resume is the lack of a World Series championship.

Baker has come awfully close over the decades. He led the Giants to Game 7 against the Angels in 2002. He guided the Cubs to Game 7 of the National League Championship Series the following year. His Reds lost Game 5 of the NL Division Series in 2012. And of course he was at the helm for back-to-back Game 5 NLDS losses with the Nationals in 2016-17, the latter proving to be his final game in charge.

At the time, there was little reason to believe Baker would get another chance to manage. At his age, and with the sport trending toward younger (i.e. cheaper) and more analytically minded managers, his time appeared to be up.

Who, though, could have foreseen this scenario? It's not just that the Astros fired A.J. Hinch in January after Major League Baseball suspended him for his role in their sign-stealing scandal. It's that Houston still has a championship-caliber roster heading into the 2020 season. The club's next manager needed not only to be able to bring integrity to the clubhouse but also the ability to lead a club with huge expectations to win again right now.

If the Astros miss the playoffs in 2020, folks will claim they only won the previous three years because they were cheating. There is incredible motivation within that organization right now to prove that team is good enough to win big on the merits of its actual playing abilities.

And so the Astros needed a manager who could step right in on day one, diffuse a combustible situation and lead a talented roster of players to victory. And nobody on the available market was better suited for that job than Baker.

But it sure does make for a wild scene in West Palm Beach in two weeks. Both the Nationals and Astros report on the same day to the same complex. Then they meet on the field Feb. 22 in their Grapefruit League opener, the first of six head-to-head meetings this spring between defending pennant winners.

Then Baker makes his return to South Capitol Street for a July 4 weekend interleague series that could see Nationals fans alternately cheering their former manager and booing the team he now manages.

And then a week later, Baker will again manage against Davey Martinez in the All-Star Game. Yes, as the skipper of the defending World Series participant, Baker gets to serve as manager of the American League All-Stars against the guy who replaced him and won the NL pennant (and World Series).

Oh, and have we mentioned that Martinez used to play for Baker with the Giants back in the 1990s?

The connective tissue pulling these two teams together now is remarkable. It's going to make for one wild ride, beginning in mid-February and running straight through mid-July. At which point the two sides will go their separate ways ... unless.

Who's up for a World Series rematch, with the Nationals now trying to repeat as champions and in the process prevent Dusty Baker from winning his long-sought first managerial ring?

It sounds preposterous. But in this new Bizarro World we now find ourselves in, would anything really surprise you anymore?

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