As the baseball world turned on the Nationals, called for the manager’s head and called for the general manager to sell off every valuable part he had for future pieces, those inside the clubhouse who wear the uniform didn’t understand why everybody was so eager to abandon ship.
Yes, they had just been swept by a Mets team that looked like it was in disarray itself. They had fallen to 12 games under .500 and owned the second-worst record in the National League. But while they admittedly knew they needed to turn things around, they didn’t feel like that was an impossible task.
“It’s just part of the game,” veteran infielder Howie Kendrick said. “You’re going to go through stretches where you lose. Ours just happened to be early in the year. I feel like it was just a matter of time before we got it rolling.”
As you know by now, the Nationals most definitely did get it rolling. They returned home from that embarrassing sweep at Citi Field and proceeded to go on one of the best sustained runs this club has ever experienced.
They won 28 of 39, including 10 of their last 12. And as they dispersed to their respective hometowns Sunday evening following their first-half finale, they owned the league’s third-best record, not to mention the NL’s top wild card position.
“I love how we overcame a lot of things the first month and a half and how we finished,” second baseman Brian Dozier said. “We knew things had to turn and we made it happen and we finished into the break really well.”
That’s putting it mildly. The Nationals didn’t just win a lot of games during this six-week stretch. They were in position to win almost every single game.
The Nationals have either held a lead or were tied in the seventh inning or later in each of their last 19 games - and in 35 of these last 39 games that have turned their season around. They’ve barely ever faced a no-win situation. Crazy as it sounds, they probably should have gone even better than 28-11, given how many of those losses they were in position to win late.
“We don’t quit,” said Davey Martinez, whose team has 20 come-from-behind wins. “We don’t quit. Adversity builds character.”
It doesn’t hurt to have a manager who never lost his clubhouse, no matter how bad things appeared to look from the outside.
Martinez may raise eyebrows with his in-game decisions at times, but his ability to communicate with players and keep 25 high-priced personalities all on the same page even when their losing games has been critical to the Nationals’ turnaround.
It’s only more striking when you consider some other franchises currently on the brink of collapse - perhaps one or two from within the NL East - and note how their leadership has been unable to keep everything intact.
There were ample opportunities for Nationals players and employees to publicly or privately complain about the state of affairs, to point fingers at those they believed were most responsible for their disappointing start to the season. It never happened, and more than one person in the organization credits Martinez for that more than anyone else.
“He’s a hell of a manager,” Dozier said way back on May 23, after the sweep in New York. “I got his back any day.”
One of Martinez’s toughest tasks was to keep his players from worrying too much about the big picture. He knew it would do them no good to think about how many games they needed to make up in the standings, and so he has gone out of his way to preach a one-day-at-a-time mentality that has proven critical to the team’s turnaround.
“I tell these guys every day: Let’s just focus on the here and now,” Martinez said. “Go 1-0 every day. Don’t worry about yesterday or tomorrow. Just go out every day. That’s been our focus.”
It can sound clichéd and it can be frustrating to hear the same message every single day. But there’s something to it.
So in the process of ignoring the big picture and focusing solely on the daily task at hand, the Nationals managed to climb back up the standings. And in only six weeks, they went from 12 games under .500 to five games over the break-even mark, from the NL’s 14th-best record to its third-best mark.
“I think we knew we were capable of playing this way, but in order to make up those games some other teams have to cooperate as well,” closer Sean Doolittle said. “It’s awesome that we played as well as we played, but when you would glance up at the standings every couple of days just to see what else was going on, every time it seemed like: ‘Oh my gosh, we just made up like two or three games.’ That almost gives you that confidence and helps you continue that momentum.”
The ultimate task, of course, is far from complete. The Nationals worked like crazy to climb out of a huge hole and get back over the .500 mark. But they still have a whole lot of work ahead of them.
They’ve played at an astounding .718 clip during this 39-game stretch. No one expects them to be able to sustain that pace for another 73 games to close out the season. But if they can play .600 ball the rest of the way, the Nationals will finish with 91 wins, almost certainly enough to extend the season into October.
In order to do that, the Nats will need to win despite a tougher schedule coming out of the break (they face the Phillies, Braves, Rockies and Dodgers before the end of July). They will need to keep their elite rotation healthy, their deep lineup productive and their patchwork bullpen effective.
But if they can do all that, they might just finish off one of the most impressive in-season turnarounds in 21st-century baseball. Only one team in the wild card era has started a season 19-31 or worse and come back to make the playoffs: the 2005 Astros, who went from 18-32 to 89-73.
They’ve got a long way still to go, but the 2019 Nationals have somehow put themselves in position to do it themselves.
“As a team, just to finish there how we did is awesome,” left-hander Patrick Corbin said. “To be five games up after where we were a couple months ago ... I think we’re kind of where we want to be here. I think everything has been fun this year to be able to get to where we are, and I’m excited for the second half to kind of see what this team can do.”