Tuesday, June 18, 2019


Washington Nationals manager Dave Martinez spent Monday afternoon pushing a big truck tire around Nationals Park 100 times.

A symbol, perhaps, of what his team faces this week in two home series against division rivals, the Philadelphia Phillies and the Atlanta Braves? And, beyond that, for the rest of the 2019 season? Or just a 54-year-old tough guy trying to stay in shape?

You could make the case for both.

QUIZ: Can you match the nickname to the Major League Baseball player?

It’s going to take a tough guy in good shape to lift this team out of the 19-31 hole they fell into nearly two months into the season. To win the National League East, which is likely the only way anyone from this division will make the playoffs, Martinez and the Nationals will have to catch the teams in front of them, the Braves, with their nine-game lead, and the Phillies, six games ahead going into Tuesday night.

Turning over truck tires is unfamiliar territory for the Nationals.

Others have tried here — and failed.

Former Nationals manager Matt Williams could turn over a truck tire with a glare. His 2015 team started the season with a 10-14 record after 24 games, managed to fight back with a 33-21 record over the next month. But they went 23-30 in July and August, and finished the season with an 83-79 record.

They finished with a winning record, but fell short of the next step — to overcome the team or teams in front of you. It’s the extra step that is the equivalent of turning over truck tires every day over the course of a season.

That extra step has not been the modus operandi of this team over the years. The Nationals have either won or gone home.

In 2012, they won the NL East by a comfortable four games. In 2014, they won the division by a whopping 17 games. In 2016, it was an eight-game lead and in 2017 they had a 20-game margin when the season ended. No turning over truck tires there. The wheels turned smoothly on their own.

In between — in 2013, 2015 and last year, finishing second with an 82-80 record — this franchise lacked what it took to overtake and pass the team or teams in front of them.

There’s not a lot of experience in that locker room with comeback seasons. So I asked Martinez this week what it takes for a team to climb back into a division race — to play from behind, day after day, until suddenly one day you look at the standings in September and you are in first place.

“For me, honestly, it is to focus on the here and now,” Martinez said. “Let’s worry about winning today. We set a standard here — we’ll get back into it, but we’ve got to win today. Don’t worry about tomorrow. There’s nothing you can do about tomorrow until it gets there. Win today. I tell the guys every day — let’s go 1-0. Worry about the next day on the next day.”

OK. Play the short game. But while you may not worry about tomorrow, yesterday and the day before may be cause for concern.

I asked Martinez what are the things that a team can’t have happen?

“We’ve got to stay away from those two- or three-game losses in a row,” he said. “We want to win every day. I get it. We do. But there are going to be days where we get outplayed. But we’ve got to come back the next day and do it again, play good baseball.”

In 2013, they weren’t able to do that. They had a three-loss streak in July, followed by a six-loss streak later that month, a four-game losing streak in August and a three-loss run in September. In 2015, the Nationals had two three-game losing streaks in June, a three-loss stretch in July, a four-game losing streak and a six-game losing streak in August, followed by a five-loss span and another four-game losing streak in September.

Last season, Martinez’s first, Washington lost four straight in June and six straight in July, followed by two three-game losing streaks in August and a three-game losing streak in September.

It may seem unrealistic for a team to inoculate itself against losing two or three games in a row for three or four months. But when you are trying to gain ground, you can’t afford to take three or more steps back, because you are playing against the calendar as well as the opponents you are trying to catch. At some point, you run out of time to gain ground.

The Nationals, with a rotation that includes Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, would seem well-positioned to avoid those consecutive losses that Martinez spoke of. But that rotation has already suffered through two three-game losing streaks in April and two four-game stretches of losses in May. That’s not comeback baseball.

From what we’ve seen over the years, comeback baseball has not been the Washington Nationals’ style. They’ll have to flip a lot of tires to change that.

Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday and Sunday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.

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