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Sunday, February 14, 2021

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

What are the most revered numbers in Washington Nationals baseball history?

Is it 47 — the departed but never forgotten Howie Kendrick’s number?


Is it 7 — representing Game 7 where the Nationals captured their World Series title against the Houston Astros two years ago?

How about 19-31 — the ignominious start for that same baseball team that became an iconic symbol of its resilience? 

You mention 19-31 to a Nationals fan and they know exactly what you are talking about.

“Everybody always brings that up,” Nationals manager Davey Martinez said. “I really don’t like that number.”

He was laughing when he said that. Of course Martinez recognizes the importance of those numbers and what they mean to the history of this franchise. He knows 19-31 is more than just wins and losses, it’s a measure of the heart of that 2019 championship squad.

Martinez would prefer 31-19, though. 

I mean, after all, who needs that kind of heavy lifting?

“I’ve emphasized all winter long trying to get out of the gate quick and staying on top,” Martinez said as the Nationals head to spring training in West Palm Beach.

Pitchers and catchers report to camp Wednesday.

“We’re going to focus on that and see if we can’t get out of the gate quicker than we have my first three years. I think we have the right guys. We have the right talent. I am looking forward to spring training.”

Martinez himself brought up the pattern of slow starts in his first three seasons in Washington. They had a 12-16 record in the month of April in 2018 and 12-18 in the first half of last year’s pandemic-shortened 60-game season, finishing in last place in the National League East with a 26-34 mark.

But Martinez believes he and general manager Mike Rizzo are prepared for any COVID-19-related challenges this coming season and have put the team in the right position with the offseason additions of slugging first baseman Josh Bell, reliever Brad Hand and two players Martinez is very familiar with — pitcher Jon Lester and outfielder Kyle Schwarber.

Lester, 37, is one of the top left-handers of his time, with a 193-111 mark over 15 seasons, including a 19-5 record with the Chicago Cubs in their 2016 World Series championship season — with Martinez as manager Joe Maddon’s bench coach. He is coming off a 3-3 record with a 5.16 ERA in 12 starts, and was signed to be the fourth starter, behind Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, on a one-year $4 million deal.

“I’ve known Jon for a long time,” Martinez said. “He is a true winner, a competitor and fits right in with the rest of our pitching staff. The younger guys could learn a lot from him. He’s a great clubhouse guy. He wants to win and compete every fifth day. We feel he still has a lot in the tank and I am looking forward to watching him pitch for us and win a lot of games.”

While Martinez admires Lester, he loves himself some Kyle Schwarber, the former Cubs slugger who averaged 31 home runs a year from 2017 through 2019 but slumped last season, with a .188 batting average, 11 home runs and 24 RBI in 191 at bats.

Schwarber, 27, struggled at times in the outfield in Chicago, but Martinez thinks he hasn’t yet had his most productive years.

“He hasn’t reached his full potential yet and we’re looking forward to him batting in the middle of our lineup somewhere and driving in some big runs for us,” Martinez said. “I love this guy. I had him when he first came up to the big leagues. He was a catcher and we were trying to find a spot for him. They asked me if I thought he could play the outfield. I went down to Florida with him and worked with him for a month before spring training. I said I think this guy is a good outfielder and I think he can play there. He worked really hard. He went from not knowing much about playing the outfield to becoming a good outfielder.”

The additions of Lester and Schwarber are both signs of the 56-year-old Martinez’s stronger voice in the Nationals organization. There have also been Martinez-friendly changes in the coaching staff, including former Cubs pitching coach Jim Hickey coming to Washington.

Martinez’s influence can be traced to the job security that comes with his new three-year contract.

“Mike (Rizzo) and I sat down, we knew the core players that we had and we knew the pieces that we needed,” Martinez said. “Then comes the money side of it where we had to make sure we did things the right way. Mike started working diligently to make us better all winter long. We were constantly talking on the phone about different players. We had a list of players that we were looking at. We got the players that we thought could help us win another championship in 2021.”

The last championship was just two seasons ago, but it seems like a distant memory. Martinez would prefer if the 19-31 start that year remain in the rearview mirror as well.

Hear Thom Loverro on The Kevin Sheehan Show podcast.


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