After Atlanta Braves television announcer Joe Simpson implied that Nationals wunderkind Juan Soto isn’t really 19 years old, Mike Rizzo moseyed up to the broadcast booth to demand a correction. “Like we handle most of the problems in Nationals Land, we went up to the booth and I had a man-to-man discussion,” the Nationals’ general manager and team president said in a later radio interview with The Sports Junkies.
That’s the Rizzo philosophy. If there’s something to be done, well, he’s the guy for the job. And in a whirlwind of moves during and around the trade deadline, where even non-actions represent a certain kind of assertion, it’s even more clear that this is Rizzo’s team.
The Nationals entered the July 31 trade deadline in a strange place. Despite being pre-season favorites, they found themselves behind not one, but two teams in the division. They’ve had a five- or six-game deficit for weeks—not close enough or so far back that selling the farm made sense.
Rizzo reportedly considered all his options. He looked at things to buy. He looked at things to sell, going so far as to consider offers for Bryce Harper. But in the end, he made a bet on himself. It was a bet on the team he assembled with the explicit goal (as evidenced by the removal of former manager Dusty Baker) of not just making the playoffs, but of winning the whole thing.
It was Rizzo doubling down on a previous bet he made, a bet on Davey Martinez, the team’s first-year manager. Some fans have blamed Martinez for the team’s poor play, including its average baserunning and his shaky handling of the pitching staff. Chelsea Janes of The Washington Post wrote a piece that included a number of on-the-record quotes from players essentially saying, “Sure, he’s a nice guy, but he doesn’t quite yet know what he’s doing.” Yahoo’s Jeff Passan cited four sources that called the clubhouse “a mess.”
Martinez hasn’t had an easy job. The team has been crushed by injuries. Daniel Murphy missed half the year, as did Adam Eaton and Ryan Zimmerman. Howie Kendrick, who was re-signed to be the injury depth at multiple positions, suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in May and is out for the year. At one point, the Nats had a player named Moisés Sierra batting fifth and it sort of made sense at the time.
But there are also in-game miscues. The Nats have been a disaster on the bases. When it’s not Trea Turner or Michael A. Taylor sprinting fast for second, look away. The team seems to stumble into extra outs a few times every series, leading the league in the number of times a player is tagged out between pitches. Recently, Soto managed to get picked off twice in a game against the Cubs, including once in the eighth inning with the team trailing by a run.
Some managers have an innate feel for when and how to use relievers. Martinez doesn’t have it. One of the complaints players made to The Post is how frequently he warms relievers, only to not use them. In other cases, he has put relievers into unusual roles or places where they feel they’re unable to succeed.
It was that, depending on whose version of events you believe, that gave Rizzo another chance to take action, and to arrest some of the criticism his manager was facing. Rizzo traded reliever Brandon Kintzler to the Cubs because he thought that Kintzler was leaking information about clubhouse discord and personal gripes about Martinez’s bullpen strategies to the media. While Kintzler denied it (as did one of the reporters), it was just Rizzo being Rizzo. He handled it, as is his wont, by just making the problem disappear.
When reliever Shawn Kelley tossed his glove and showed some frustration with (again, depending on whose version of events you believe) mopping up the final inning in a game the Nats were winning by more than three touchdowns, it was time for him to go. According to Fancred’s Jon Heyman, Rizzo, not Martinez, confronted Kelley after the game, shouting at him before other players intervened to separate them. Rizzo saw an intemperate reliever, and took action, removing him from the roster the first chance he could.
Asserting himself even more the next day, Rizzo issued an unsaid warning to the clubhouse and put Kelley on blast, calling him selfish. “It’s pretty cut-and-dried,” Rizzo told reporters. “You guys all saw it. The act that he portrayed on the field last night was disrespectful to the name on the front of the jersey, the organization, specifically Davey Martinez. And you’re either in or you’re in the way. And I thought he was in the way.”
In both the Kintzler and Kelley cases, the subtext became overt. Rizzo saw both relievers as threats to the manager and to the harmony of the clubhouse. Since the manager he hired doesn’t yet, or might not ever, have the gravitas of an old pro like Baker, Rizzo felt he needed to step in and fill the void. Martinez couldn’t assert himself, so Rizzo would. Out went two useful relievers on a roster already lacking All-Star closer Sean Doolittle due to injury. Hours later, the team lost its other ace reliever, Kelvin Herrera.
So far, the results of the thinned-out pen have been disastrous. Since the team jettisoned Kelley, the bullpen ERA has hovered near 6.00, and the group somehow managed to give up walk-off homers in games they’ve led on successive days. The manager might not be threatened by the personalities, but no lead is safe. Martinez, after the second of those losses, told the press, “I don’t know what else to do.”
The players themselves aren’t really filling the void either. The team’s veterans all appear to be quiet types, none owning the intensity of the recently retired Jayson Werth. On a few occasions, Max Scherzer has stepped up, taking Stephen Strasburg and others aside. But as good as Scherzer is and as respected as he is in the clubhouse, there are few teams where a starting pitcher—who, by definition, plays just twenty percent of the time—is the team’s leader.
It’s Rizzo’s team, and it’s fighting for its life. With just over a month left in the season, the Nationals are scuffling. For the first time since this run of success started in 2012, they’re in a true National League East pennant race, and have a chance to play meaningful games long into September with the season still in doubt.
But before those September games can mean anything, the Nats will face an immediate challenge. Starting on Aug. 21, six of their next nine games are against the Phillies. Every game is a two-game swing in the standings. If the Nats want to save this season, then they’ll need to decisively win those two series.
The pressure will be on, and we know how that goes with Rizzo’s teams. In 2014, even before those gut-wrenching five-game playoff losses in 2016 and 2017, Tim Hudson, then of the San Francisco Giants, told The Post that “talent can take you a long ways, but what do you have between your legs? That’s going to take you real far.”
Hudson, for what it’s worth, threw 7.1 innings of one-run ball as his Giants crushed the Nats in four games.
After the Nats stood still at the deadline, they might not have the talent they’ve had in the past. So they have to hope the rest of Hudson’s philosophy about overcoming talent holds. For Rizzo, a man who prides himself on doing things “man-to-man,” that’s quite the challenge. These next few weeks will demonstrate whether his team can live up to it.
Photo by Keith Allison on Flickr, used under the Creative Commons BY-SA 2.0 license.