In his first year back in the dugout, Dusty Baker guided the Washington Nationals back to the postseason. We should not be surprised.
Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon will take the hardware home. You can make a strong case for New York Mets skipper Terry Collins and rookie manager Dave Roberts with the Los Angeles Dodgers for how they handled injuries. Make no mistake, the Nationals do not with the NL East without Baker.
Go back a year. Favorites to win in the preseason, the Nats wilted and melted under the guidance of an overmatched Matt Williams. From Jonathan Papelbon choking Bryce Harper in the dugout to the lost September with the Mets, Williams was unprepared to handle a club with expectations or be creative.
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After chasing Bud Black, Washington “settled” on Baker. The way you settle on a Cadillac instead of a Buick. The entire atmosphere around the team changed, and they became one unit. A baby-making one, according to Baker.
As a long-time player and manager—2016 is Baker’s 21st year as the lead guy in charge—somehow he can relate to what today’s player’s need to hear. He is always smiling, moving the ever-present toothpick around his mouth. He trusts his coaches, leaning on bench coach Chris Speier and pitching coach Mike Maddux for counsel.
Whatever clubhouse dramas play out in private, Baker and his staff keep a tight lip in public.
Sure, we can bicker on pitching usage or how honest the team is with injury news but, if you watched the division-clinching celebration last week, his team loves him and each other. The discord of 2015 is gone. Twenty-five guys drive to work every day who love their job, give the credit to Baker.
Most successful managers come from two different camps, a career minor leaguer who learned to coach like Bobby Cox or Tony La Russa or catchers who managed their pitchers during their playing days. Joe Torre and Mike Scioscia fit that description.
Baker is in neither. A long-time outfielder who played well for years with the Atlanta Braves and Dodgers, among others, he won 103 games his first season with the Giants and failed to make the playoffs. The last season, 1993, where there was no Wild Card.
In the generation since he has earned things the hard way, let the 2002 World Series get away and overusing starting pitching comes to mind. This time, Baker comes across as relaxed and at peace with himself and his career.
We see that every night on the field with the Washington Nationals. They rarely beat themselves and stay patient when things go wrong.
Going into October that tranquility is a good thing to have in your back pocket.