Nats have last laugh at all those who doubted them after epic midseason turnaround

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Chase Hughes
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WASHINGTON -- No one would have blamed the Nationals if they fired manager Davey Martinez on May 23. They had just been swept by a Mets team that was a laughingstock going into the four-game series and Martinez was even ejected in the finale. 

If D.C. columnists and radio hosts had their way, the final image of his Nats tenure would have been him kicking the infield dirt in a tantrum at Citi Field. What a way to go out.

At 19-31, it seemed untenable. The Nats appeared headed for their second consecutive season without a playoff berth, something they have not experienced in eight years.

No one outside the Nationals clubhouse believed they would turn it around and make the playoffs, as they did officially on Tuesday night with their win over the Phillies and the Cubs' loss to the Pirates. Those who were in the clubhouse had to have their doubts. 

After all, what the Nats have done this season is extremely rare. Only two other teams in MLB history have made the playoffs after being as bad or worse than the Nats were after 50 games. Three total teams now, that's it.

So, sure, there was no way the Nationals knew this would happen. Right?

"Without a doubt. I think everybody in this clubhouse envisioned this exact thing right here," shortstop Trea Turner said.

Okay, Trea. That's one man's opinion. Surely, he was the only one who saw a 68-38 surge on the horizon, one that would start with a narrow 12-10 win against the Marlins on May 24 and lead to champagne bottles and Budweisers getting wheeled into the clubhouse on Sept. 25. 

"You know what? I imagined it in spring training. I really did," Martinez said. "And I said it, May 24, I said this team is going to bounce back and turn it around."

It makes sense the Nats believed in themselves, even if no one else did at the time. They wouldn't be in this position if it weren't the case. But it took much more than collective confidence to complete the most improbable midseason turnaround in franchise history.

They got healthy, namely with Juan Soto, Anthony Rendon and Turner shaking their early-season injury woes. Anibal Sanchez went on the injured list and returned a different pitcher. 

Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin hit their stride. Role players like Asdrubal Cabrera, Kurt Suzuki, Howie Kendrick and Gerardo Parra gave them a lift. Their bullpen was technically there, too.

Now, in hindsight, it all makes sense; even Baby Shark. But what a beautifully ludicrous ride it has been.

"You sign up for 162 games, man," first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "Nobody quits after 40 or 50 or 60. That's what makes our team great."

Whether anyone in the clubhouse or outside of it predicted the Nats would do what they did, clearly they didn't panic. Even when they were 12 games under .500 at the time, with the second-worst record in the NL (only the Marlins were worse) and 10 games behind the first-place Phillies (welp) they stayed the course and proved resilient enough to save their season.

"It was a situation where I think a lot of teams could've folded," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "A lot of teams, the clubhouse would have been fractured. But Davey held this thing together, and I give him a lot of credit for that."

Rizzo, of course, would have been the guy to make the call to fire Martinez. Good thing he doesn't follow the tides of Twitter and sports talk shows. He now looks quite smart for being patient with Martinez as he dug the Nats out of their midseason hole.

Along the way, as they morphed into a team bound for the postseason, you could say they truly became Martinez' team. They took on his identity. He was plucked off the Joe Maddon managerial tree,  brought in to loosen up the clubhouse as a players' coach.

The camels and putt-putt contests in spring training were mocked last year. But this season that approach seems to be a plus.

Can you imagine the dugout dancing and Baby Shark bonanza with Matt Williams in charge? Well, maybe he wouldn't notice because they happen during games in the dugout.

But even Davey Johnson or Dusty Baker? It just seems like Martinez has created a clubhouse vibe that embraces individual personalities more than ever before.

Ultimately, all they have secured is one more game, a do-or-die match-up set for Tuesday night. They have only guaranteed themselves a few more hours of baseball.

But, as Zimmerman said, "all you've got to do is have a chance." And for now, they can rub it in the faces of all who doubted them on May 24.

"We talked about it when we were 19-31, we talked about how we were going to laugh at everybody else outside of this clubhouse for everything that they said about us and we are here now," Turner said.

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Nats have last laugh at all those who doubted them after epic midseason turnaround originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington