Nationals Park on Aug. 17 Credit: Kelyn Soong

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The Washington Nationals find themselves in an unfamiliar position. After opening the season with a 19-31 record, the next five and a half weeks will determine whether the team will win the National League East division, host a wild-card game, be a visiting wild-card team, or miss the postseason entirely.

A few months ago, the thought of the Nats having options would’ve been stunning. They languished near the bottom of the National League standings as trade rumors swirled around the team. Fans and sportswriters called for manager Dave Martinez to be fired. 

Now the team is in a true pennant race for the first time since the franchise returned to D.C. in 2005. Every game matters.

“It just feels like maybe there’s a little bit more energy in the dugouts,” says pitcher Sean Doolittle. “There seems to be a little more buzz in the stadium. You’re not just playing the season out. There’s something that’s very much on the line every night, and it’s fun. We work all year for that opportunity to play meaningful baseball in August and September, so it’s fun.”

The Nats have recently dominated their way to the playoffs on four occasions, winning the NL East and clinching a playoff spot weeks before the regular season wraps up. They last did it in 2017 when they finished with a 97-65 regular season record and another NL East crown. But each time the team fell short of its preseason goals, losing in the National League Division Series and often in heartbreaking fashion.

Being in a pennant race, instead of cruising to the playoffs, could help.

“It’s about peaking at the right time,” Doolittle says. “I remember in ’17, it was tough for us to be at the high of clinching the division, then we were trying to catch the Dodgers for home field. It just didn’t have the same feel of a playoff race. You go into the playoffs not having played a real meaningful game in three weeks. I’m not saying that’s why we lost, but this way, if we keep going in the direction that we’re going, we can take that momentum right into the playoffs.”

First baseman Matt Adams agrees. As of Aug. 21, the Nats are 68-57 and just six games behind the NL East-leading Atlanta Braves.

“I think it’s more beneficial to be in a tight race, just because you’re focused daily,” he says. “I think the bigger leads, you can kinda coast through it, and then come playoffs, you’re going into it a little bit relaxed. I think we’re right where we want to be.”

But some fans still need more time before believing in Martinez’s team. Browse Twitter late during Nats games and it’s clear that the manager’s mishandling of the bullpen draws ire—or at least confusion.

During a recent press conference, Washington Post sports columnist Thomas Boswell asked Martinez why he felt the need to use Doolittle as the closer while the Nats had a three-run lead in the bottom of the ninth inning of the Nats’ eventual 15-14 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers on Aug. 17. The Nats eventually placed Doolittle on a 10-day injured list with “right knee tendinitis.”

The team had just added relief pitchers Daniel Hudson, Hunter Strickland, and the since-injured Roenis Elías at the trade deadline in part to lessen Doolittle’s workload.

“Doolittle’s the closer,” Martinez responded. “He’s the closer of this team. We’ve said that before. And this is based off conversations with Doo. If he’s available, as we talked about, he’s going to pitch the ninth inning. And he’s always been in the game when he said he’s available to pitch.”

Boswell pushed back: “That’s not the only way it’s been done in baseball. There are closers that are closers, and then there are situations where they don’t close, because the manager thinks it’s better for the team, better for the guy.”

Martinez replied that he trusts Doolittle’s honesty and the team wouldn’t be where it is without him. “Do you have to use more of your judgment and less of theirs?” Boswell asked, echoing the thoughts of fans who question Martinez’s decisions.

But even with the bullpen issues, the team has repeatedly shown its ability to rebound. Less than 24 hours after the 14-inning loss, the Nats pummeled the Brewers, 16-8, before flying to Pittsburgh and beating the Pirates, 13-0, the following day. 

“This team is incredibly competitive,” Martinez said after losing to the Brewers. “They don’t quit. Down 5-0 in the fourth inning and we come back. And we keep coming back, and we fell short. But man, I’m proud of these guys. They don’t quit. They fight through the last out. They keep fighting.”

Part of the reason for the team’s tenacity this season is that Martinez never lost the trust of his players, says MASN’s Mark Zuckerman, who has covered the Nats for various outlets since 2005. There hasn’t been any of the finger pointing and sniping that the long-time reporter says he’s seen in previous locker rooms.

“He may not be a perfect Xs and Os manager,” Zuckerman says, “but I don’t think there’s any question now how much respect the players in the clubhouse have for him and how he and the veterans in the clubhouse kept that team together at a time where they could’ve fallen apart.”

It also helps to have players who know how and when to have fun. Turn on a Nationals game and you may see second baseman Brian Dozier or outfielder Victor Robles twerking in the dugout after hitting a home run. 

Players credit outfielder Gerardo Parra for introducing the dance party and bringing a certain levity to the team. He’s the guy who uses “Baby Shark” as his walk-up song and has gotten a stadium full of fans and even opposing players to clap along.

“We’re having more fun,” Doolittle says. “We’re coming to the field every day expecting to win. I don’t think you can overstate the impact Parra has had on this team, keeping people loose, but at the same time staying focused on what we have to do to win ball games … Maybe it helps that you have some veteran guys in here, guys just want to win. Everybody’s pulling for the guy next to them. I don’t know, man. It’s been really fun.”

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