Are the Nationals starting to feel like the worst of George Steinbrenner in the 1980s? Have they started a team trend in which the manager gets fewer chances to bring them to the Promised Land? You might think so now that Dusty Baker has refused a return engagement.
Baker led the Nats to back-to-back National League division series and the Nats never got past either. But letting him walk after this year’s skirmish with the Cubs that ended in a cage match of a comedy of errors just doesn’t seem right.
“I’m surprised and disappointed,” he told USA Today. “They told me they would get back to me and I told them I was leaving town yesterday and they waited ten days to tell me. I really thought this was my best year. We won at least 95 games each year and won the division back to back years but they said they wanted to go a different direction. It’s hard to understand.”
Baker’s successor will be the fourth Nats manager since 2013. No manager has lasted more than three seasons since the franchise moved to Washington from Montreal. Are they trying to become the new Steinbrenner?
You get the Nats being win-now with Bryce Harper about to enter the first walk year of his career. What you don’t get is Baker paying for the sins of his players in this month’s division series. Baker’s not the perfect manager for a team with postseason glory on its minds, but this wasn’t even close to his fault.
This time, Baker didn’t put a kind of gun to his bosses’ head about a new contract, the way he did when his Giants lost a 2002 World Series they were eight outs from winning in Game Six. Oh, he barked a little bit during the season about it, including the day he said he thought he was one of the more underpaid skippers in the Show. The Nats have survived louder and nastier barkings than that.
“Baker’s contract is up,” wrote the Washington Post‘s Barry Svrluga after the division series ended, “so it isn’t really about firing him. It’s about bringing him back.” It’s also about his coaching staff. They all expired after the Nats’ season ended, too. There’s a good chance of a new-look Nats brain trust come spring training.
This time, Baker didn’t burn out his two best young pitchers, stand by while his clubhouse blew itself up spending more time as enforcers than players, blow a wild card, and finish with two followup losing seasons, as happened to his Cubs. Baker was smart enough to let pitching coach Mike Maddux shepherd and manage the arms,
This time, he didn’t win once at home after taking the first two division series games on the road, or hook his starting pitcher too late and blow a subsequent wild card game, the way he did with Johnny Cueto in the 2013 game, which ended his tenure on the Reds’ bridge.
He didn’t blow up the Nationals’ clubhouse the way Matt Williams did in 2014. Baker didn’t always have a Book to which he adhered without fail and without suffering fools who questioned it. And he wouldn’t have even thought about being caught unaware if one of his players was damn fool enough to try choking a teammate.
If anything, Baker made sure his clubhouse was harmonious and stood ready to protect players. He got Ryan Zimmerman through a comeback season that could have gone the other way. He knew how to handle the psyches of such veterans as Daniel Murphy, Jayson Werth, and Bryce Harper. And he knew how to shepherd such oncoming youth as Trea Turner.
When Stephen Strasburg took ill as the division series shifted to Chicago during a spell of rain threats that postponed Game Four, Baker got caught in a communications mixup about Strasburg’s condition that yet enabled him to send Strasburg out to start the game when it could be played. A lot of observers howled, but Baker was really doing nothing worse than trying to protect his pitcher.
The often-injured Strasburg pitched a masterpiece and made Game Five possible. That was the problem—it made Game Five possible. And Game Five probably put paid to Baker’s Nats tenure through little to no fault of his own.
“It was one of the most difficult decisions the ownership group and I have had to make since we’ve been in Washington,” said general manager Mike Rizzo in a Friday teleconference with reporters. “We’ve come such a long way. Winning a lot of regular season games and winning divisions is not enough.”
Translation: Game Five sealed Baker’s fate, since the Nats decided it wouldn’t do to fire a suddenly clumsy catcher, a couple of pinch hitters, and a bazillion dollar starter pressed into relief service and forced to watch almost helplessly while his team fell apart completely.
The Cubs survived the cage match and went on to a National League Championship Series in which they overmatched themselves against a Dodgers team without a lick of charity in their hearts or their pitching staff.
Last year the Nats fell to the Dodgers in round one, when manager Dave Roberts decided Clayton Kershaw could give him a save in the clincher. This year, they collapsed completely when Baker decided winning Game Five meant bringing starter Max Scherzer in from the bullpen on two days’ rest—which meant Scherzer’s between-starts throwing day, anyway.
Baker was playing to win. His Nats had a 4-3 lead going to the top of the fifth and starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez looked shakier as the game went forward. So Baker reached for Scherzer, and Scherzer opened the top of the fifth by getting rid of Kris Bryant on a ground out to shortstop and Anthony Rizzo on a fly out to deep center field.
But Willson Contreras and Addison Russell collected back-to-back singles and Albert Almora, Jr. hit a two-run double abetted by left fielder Werth completely misjudging the ball.
Then Scherzer and the Nats decided to put Jason Heyward on to pitch to Javier Baez. And strike three shot past Nats catcher Matt Wieters. With plate umpire Jerry Layne maybe missing an interference call when Baez’s bat bumped Wieters’s helmet, Wieters retrieved the ball and threw wild past first base and into right field.
Cubs pinch hitter Tommy LaStella reached on catcher’s interference, Scherzer plunked Jon Jay, and suddenly it was 7-4, Cubs. Bryant popping out to shortstop to end the fateful inning at last seemed like an act of charity.
When Baker pinch hit Adam Lind with two on and nobody out in the eighth inning, Lind made it a classic case of Rocky Bridges’ legendary postmortem: I managed good, but boy, did they play bad. Lind dialed Area Code 5-6-3 almost at once.
And it’s true that Baker didn’t think much about shifting his division series lineup in order to shake a few reluctant coins out. Or, that he didn’t pinch hit for Wieters with the bases loaded while perhaps his best pinch swinger, Howie Kendrick, was never told to poke his nose out of his hole.
Conversely, it wasn’t Baker’s bright idea that backup catcher Jose Lobaton should get himself picked off first base. Or, that Turner should get thrown out at home when Cubs second baseman Javier Baez was playing pretty shallow.
It’s entirely possible that, if the Nats survived that insane in the brain Game Five, they might have been sliced, diced, and pureed by that Dodger pitching staff, too. But just getting that far might have gotten Baker his new contract.
Who’s to succeed him poses intriguing questions. Alex Cora might have, but the word is that the Red Sox will bring aboard to succeed the executed John Farrell as soon as the Astros’ postseason ends. (Cora is the Astros’ bench coach.) Brad Ausmus, let go by the Tigers as they drop the hammer even further on rebuilding, could be a topic.
Maybe Fredi Gonzalez—who took a once-collapsed collection of Braves to the wild card game the following year, and who wasn’t to blame for the team’s clumsy entry into rebuild mode—would like a chance to see what he can do with a live contender.
Maybe the Nats will find themselves in bidding wars for prospective candidates with several other teams, including the Mets and the Phillies, looking for new helmsmen. But maybe this time the Nats will be willing to break a troublesome tradition and offer something more than a couple of years and yeoman’s wages.
And maybe they’ll miss Baker a lot more than they think.