Washington Nationals

Heyman | Baker deserves to return despite NLDS flop

After the Washington Nationals — baseball’s best team that’s famous for blowing it — blew it yet again, manager Dusty Baker wore the look of a man on his way to the firing squad.

Let’s hope not. Let’s hope the Nats take a deep breath, and choose to do the prudent thing, which would be to bring Baker back.

Perhaps he isn’t perfect, and maybe his postseason record is only somewhat better than their own. But let’s not forget the Nats’ October problems go back a long way, with old master Davey Johnson and non-master Matt Williams failing to deliver in October before Baker came along.

Perhaps Baker was merely sad and spent after the Nats’ latest ignominious finish, and nothing negative about his future should be read into it. But it sure is curious that they never extended him, and nobody around the team seems too pleased with the way things ended this time.

Almost everyone around the team offered the same phrase on Friday. “It stings today,” they all said, sounding like a chorus. But there’s no official word yet on Baker, whose contract is up now.

The Nats, to be sure, played a fairly uncomely deciding Game 5 once again, between Jose Lobaton being picked off when he absolutely could not be picked off as the trail, go-ahead runner, Jayson Werth losing a double in the lights and Matt Wieters failing to corral Max Scherzer’s strike three to Javy Baez, and then throwing wildly to first base.

And never mind that Wieters was actually correct that Baez hit him on the swing, and should have been out. The umpire explanation that Baez’s errant swing didn’t affect the play was some after-the-fact baloney. How could they be sure Wieters being knocked on the noggin didn’t affect his decision-making and ill-advised wild throw to first that was the low moment in a game full of them?

If you want to be picky, Anthony Rendon probably should have come home on Kris Bryant’s grounder, because — Jon Jay borderline slide or not (according to the new rules, technically Jay should have been out for impeding Daniel Murphy) — Rendon probably wasn’t getting a double play with the speedy Bryant running. And Adam Lind shouldn’t have been overanxious after Wade Davis had walked two straight, grounding into a killer double play when Davis looked like he might be on the ropes.

As one Nats person said, “Not a time to ambush there.”

Lind needed to be patient. And the Nationals do, too.

Washington Nationals' Bryce Harper (34) walks to the dugout after making the last out as Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras celebrates after Game 5 of baseball's National League Division Series, at Nationals Park, Friday, Oct. 13, 2017, in Washington. The Cubs won 9-8 and advance. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Washington Nationals’ Bryce Harper (34) walks to the dugout after making the last out as Chicago Cubs catcher Willson Contreras celebrates after Game 5 of baseball’s National League Division Series, at Nationals Park, Friday, Oct. 13, 2017, in Washington. The Cubs won 9-8 and advance. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

I don’t know for sure, but I’d find it hard to believe that GM Mike Rizzo wants to change managers yet again. While Rizzo has done a great job with player procurement, the Nats’ managerial record is starting to look like a Metro turnstile. Jim Riggleman felt like he needed to resign, Johnson retired/left and Williams had to go. This is one of the hazards of sometimes going with older manager, and give Rizzo props there.

But Baker isn’t the issue. Baker is a three-time Manager of the Year who’s had some bad luck – some very bad luck – come October. Is he as good as Tony La Russa strategically? No, he’s not. But he’s terrific in the clubhouse, and good enough on the field. And more to the point, they are not going to find anyone better on the managerial candidate lists circulating throughout Boston, Philly, Detroit and Queens now.

If he misspoke in the press conference regarding the timing of Stephen Strasburg’s bullpen, it’s likely because he wasn’t given full information. If his phrasing regarding Strasburg’s injury – “under the weather” – seemed understated, well, somehow Strasburg was convinced to pitch, and threw a gem, so maybe he was employing some successful bit of psychology there. Anyway, Strasburg getting on that mound for Game 4 was all that mattered there.

While there’s no arguing Game 5 was a doozy, and it’s fair to say the Nats looked better on paper once again, let’s not forget this Cubs team is a special group. It’s the very team that ended a 108-year jinx (Baker was one of many who’d come close previously to doing that, thanks to the likes of Alex Gonzalez, Bartman, etc., who got in the way that time).

Rizzo suggests when you ask him that he sees the playoffs as something of a crapshoot, though maybe he doesn’t use that exact word. So it would be hard to see him blaming Baker after doing what the Nats have always done, which is fail to get out of the first round – they’ve now lost eight straight one-run games in the playoffs, dating back to before Baker. When Rizzo is asked about Baker, he says he’s a “Hall of Famer,” which doesn’t exactly guarantee a new contract but also doesn’t suggest he wants any part of firing him, either.

The Nats ownership group is a very good one that’s given Rizzo the tools to make them a perennial contender. But they are involved, and heavily so. So it’s a bit worrisome that they might make the impetuous – and wrong – call here. Let’s hope not.

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