Washington Nationals: Dusty Baker Flirts With Old Demons

Aug 26, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker (12) claps during a pregame ceremony to put Frank Howard
Aug 26, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals manager Dusty Baker (12) claps during a pregame ceremony to put Frank Howard /

With their fate settled, is Washington Nationals skipper Dusty Baker riding his pitchers too hard? His history suggests he does.

Washington Nationals Manager Dusty Baker has brought a much needed breath of fresh air this season. The team is loose and playing well on the verge of their third National League East championship in the last five years.

Compared to the tension-filled underachieving end to Matt Williams‘ tenure, 2016 is different. Baker is so laid back, he has yet to be ejected from a game.

Of all the good things he brings to the table, one bad habit from his past is creeping in. Baker loves riding his pitchers.

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Remember his stint with the Chicago Cubs? The shortened careers of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior are blamed on Baker’s over usage. Is that fair? Maybe, but the charges have stuck with him since.

Those critics are silent this year. Max Scherzer and Tanner Roark are around 200 innings pitched. Shawn Kelley and Blake Treinen are under an inning a game. The staff has one complete game. Everyone is rested for the task ahead, right?

Sometimes old habits die hard. Those looking to find fault with Baker watched last Saturday’s game against the Philadelphia Phillies and wondered why Scherzer was still grinding in the seventh inning of a glorified scrimmage. On a brutal night in Washington, Scherzer tossed 6.2 scoreless innings and 117 pitches to gut out a no-decision. It took a couple innings for him to find a groove, but he did his job while tossing more pitches than he had since July 9.

How about closer Mark Melancon? He has pitched five out of the last six games including twice against the New York Mets. Again, there was the off day, but with a 10-game lead, why grind now?

It is a fine line ensuring players get the work they need against resting too much before the playoffs. If the Washington Nationals were fighting tooth and nail to hold on to a playoff spot, no one would blink.

Yet, they are in a position where a collapse would be a bigger story than making the playoffs. With so many innings on the arms of the pitching staff why risk injury? In Scherzer’s case, the game situation was the same after the sixth inning, a scoreless tie. Melancon gave up the loss Tuesday against the Mets. Why risk it?

When Mat Latos’ hamstring went haywire in the fifth inning earlier this week, there was a collective shiver felt through Nationals Park. Stephen Strasburg’s status for the rest of this year is in doubt with a flexor mass strain. Having another pitcher go down right before the postseason would be cruel.

Although you can make solid arguments about why keeping Scherzer in and going with Melancon again are smart, they still are risky. You need to play to win but why couldn’t Kelley try for the save Wednesday?

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Baker has pushed all the right buttons this year. If an injury pops up trying to grind out a win, especially after Washington wins the division, it will only add to his reputation. With the knowledge of playing the NL West winners in the NL Divisional Series, perhaps it is time to focus on the coming task.