Davey Martinez has experienced World Series hangover. Mike Rizzo has seen other clubs battle it after winning a title.
So the Nationals manager and general manager are already trying to establish a tone that will combat the fatigue and malaise that inevitably follows a championship season.
The key message they want to deliver to their players: Be ready to go right from day one of spring training, and place importance on winning games in March and April.
Martinez knows firsthand how easy it is to forget that. The bench coach for the 2016 Cubs club that broke its 108-year curse, he saw the following season’s team stumble to a sub-.500 record entering the All-Star break before turning things back on in time to finish 92-70 and win the National League Central (before ultimately losing to the Dodgers in the NL Championship Series).
“Going through all these playoffs and the World Series like we did, ‘16 and now, I learned a lot about what to do, how to come out of that and what we need to do,” Martinez said. “We need to set a precedent early. We’ve got to come out ready to play. We’re not going to sneak up on any team. A lot of teams are getting better. We’ve got to be prepared and be ready to play from day one.”
That’s especially true of a pitching staff that pushed itself as far as it could go to win the World Series and now must recapture that form despite the shortest offseason in baseball history (Game 7 of the Fall Classic was Oct. 30, opening day will be March 26).
One year ago, the Red Sox decided to ease their top starting pitchers back into the fold and paid the price for it. The defending champs opened the season 11-17 and never caught up, finishing 84-78 and a distant third in the American League East.
The Nationals won’t be taking that approach.
“We’re going to prepare for spring training like we have every other year,” Rizzo said. “We’re not going to be complacent because we played an extra month of baseball. We’re not going to make any adjustments for preparations for our pitchers. We’re beginning right now our offseason preparation for spring training, and we’re not going to veer off of what we’ve done in the past.”
Count the two most important members of the Nationals rotation among those fully in support of that plan. Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg threw a combined 66 1/3 innings in October after a long and grueling regular season that included a series of neck and back injuries in Scherzer’s case and a career-high 3,384 pitches for Strasburg.
Neither intends to back off this winter or early in 2020 to account for the extra workload from the fall. Scherzer, who was only able to start Game 7 of the World Series thanks to a pain-relieving injection in his neck three days earlier, said this week he has been given a clean bill of health and he plans to report to West Palm Beach, Fla., right after New Year’s Day to begin ramping up a throwing program he already started earlier this month at home in suburban Virginia.
“I got all my strength,” the 35-year-old, three-time Cy Young Award winner said. “Got everything situated in that regard. Started picking up the ball, started playing catch, started working on my body to make sure that I’m as strong as possible. Strong as ever, to be able to go into a season and fully anticipate to make all my starts.”
Strasburg, who credited his rigorous offseason training regimen for his ability to stay healthy and stay effective through the full 2019 season, has been back at it this winter. He even went so far as to make sure agent Scott Boras, while negotiating his new $245 million contract, got assurances from the organization that Nationals Park would remain open every day of the offseason so he can come to the stadium to work out.
Suffice it to say, the two aces are determined not to rest on their laurels and have moved past the celebratory phase of their offseason.
“It’s funny, you go win the World Series and everybody starts to write you off for next year,” Strasburg said. “So I think that’s pouring gas on the fire for me, and I think for a lot of other guys. There’s no stopping us now. We’re going to go into next season like we did last year, and that was finish the fight and stay in the fight.”
Perhaps the most impressive thing the Nationals did this season was to stick to their manager’s message, even when things looked bleak in late May. Martinez implored them to “stay in the fight” and to “just go 1-0 every day.” It sounded clichéd, but the players bought in. And there’s no denying that it worked.
Now Martinez and Co. face a new challenge, in some ways tougher than the previous one. They have to stick to that message again, but this time they have to do it while forgetting that they already achieved the ultimate goal in 2019 and somehow find the same drive to achieve that goal again in 2020.
“Everybody talks about those World Series blues, and that’s one thing we don’t want,” Martinez said. “We don’t want to be complacent. There’s going to be a target on our back, so we’ve got to come out and be ready to play from day one. We want these guys to understand that. We’re not just going to sit around and say: ‘Well, we’ve got plenty of time.’ No, the time is from day one. We’re going to get ready for the season, and hopefully, do it again.”