The 12-run outburst in Game 2 Wednesday night wasn’t just a hot team with lucky bats. The five runs they scored in Game 1 wasn’t an accident.
The groundwork for this success was laid in conversations with manager Dave Martinez and his coaching staff going back to spring training. The two-out run-driving hits began in the batting cages at West Palm Beach, just a few hundred feet away from the Astros in the complex the two teams share. And those conversations continued even through the early struggles of this Nationals squad, when they were 19-31 and on the brink of collapse.
Here’s one instruction that sunk in and stuck with this veteran team — don’t strike out.
“We’ve talked about this a lot when we were struggling, and the strikeouts,” Martinez told reporters after Washington’s Game 3 victory Wednesday night. “I’ve always said this: Strikeouts is not OK, regardless of what people say. I don’t believe in it. There’s nothing comes from it when you strike out, you’re just going to walk back to the dugout. I believe in just putting the ball in play. Things happen when you put the ball in play, regardless. Regardless of whether you get a hit or not. But good things happen when you constantly put the ball in play. And we’ve got better at that. And tonight was a perfect example.”
The Nationals continue to be the anti-trend team in baseball, the one that still relies on scouting, instead of their rivals, the Astros, who swept away much of their scouting staff two years ago and invested their resources in video and computer. It has served Houston well, with one World Series title in 2017, a trip to the American League Championship Series last year and a 107-win season this year. But the old-school ways, with a team full of old-school players, can still be a path to success in the game today.
No strikeouts? That’s old school.
Strikeouts have gone up every year for at least a decade, as players are being taught to try to drive the ball out of the park, even at the cost of striking out.
They have been taught the risk is worth the reward, part of the analytics movement.
Not in Washington, where the value of putting the ball in play is still paramount. The players believe it is part of this team’s comeback identity.
Anthony Rendon was asked after Game 2 about his team’s success hitting with two strikes.
“If we could pinpoint one certain thing, man, I think it might just be our resilience,” he said. “Davey emphasized in spring training he doesn’t like strikeouts. If we are striking out then obviously we’re not giving ourselves a chance to get on base, we’re just getting ourselves out, and obviously we’re not making the defense work.
“We have some speed at the top of the order, so we can run balls out and put some pressure on the defense any way possible,” Rendon said. “It was great to be able to be put some balls in play and limit our strikeouts as much as we can, and just try to scratch any kind of run we can get.”
This series has been portrayed as old-school versus new-school baseball, and it is never as simple as that. The Nationals have an analytics department they value and use as part of their decision making. And again, the Astros way has resulted in unprecedented success for the franchise. But the debate has also, right or not, been portrayed as humanity versus data, and right now in this series, humanity is winning.
The Nationals are oozing humanity — the dancing in the dugout, the Gerardo Parra “Baby Shark” movement, the Juan Soto show, the whole “Let’s have fun,” mantra that Martinez has preached to whoever would listen, like he did after Washington’s 5-4 Game 1 win over Houston. “Like I tell the boys: Just one day at a time,” he said, the message that has not changed over a long season.
“Just stay in the moment. Enjoy the moment. Have fun.”
“Fun” for the Washington Nationals is winning baseball games with two strikes. After all, they’ve had two strikes against them for much of the season.
⦁ Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.
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