Dusty Baker has the Washington Nationals on the verge of yet another early postseason exit. Following Monday’s tight 2-1 loss in Game 3 of the National League Division Series over the Chicago Cubs, Baker finds himself in a familiar role: Postseason scapegoat.
You could sum up his performance with one sentence: Same ol’ Dusty.
Except that’s now become the lazy, cliché response any time Baker’s team loses a close game. People are quick to jump all over Baker. He’s somehow the only topic in which both statheads and traditionalists are in agreement. If something goes wrong, Baker is at fault.
He wasn’t perfect during the one-run loss. Replacing Scherzer with lefty Sammy Solis was the most egregious decision. With the tying run on second, he opted to go with a pitcher who posted a 5.88 ERA in the regular season over Sean Doolittle, who had a 2.40 ERA since joining the Nats and is also left-handed. Baker paid dearly for that choice, as Solis promptly gave up the hit that tied the game.
It’s fair to criticize Baker for that decision. Any time a manager drops a close game, you can typically find one or two of their choices that stand out. What makes Baker different is that people go out of their way to put the blame on him no matter what happens. That was evident in the seventh inning, when he took out an excellent Max Scherzer after an inspired performance.
That was the moment the second-guessing started. How could Dusty take out Scherzer now? He had given up just one hit and was only at 98 pitches. Scherzer, however, was coming off a hamstring injury, and had said before the game he intended to throw 100 pitches. While Scherzer is ultra competitive, even he admitted he was fine with Dusty’s choice.
Scherzer said it was "50/50" call to stay in game or not. Defended Dusty's decision to remove him there.
— Mark Zuckerman (@MarkZuckerman) October 9, 2017
Scherzer was rolling, but there was a solid process behind the decision. With hindsight, we know it didn’t work out, so Baker gets the blame.
Problem is, if Baker left Scherzer in and he proceeded to allow the Cubs to tie the game, the same thing happens. “Same ol’ Dusty” would be incredibly fitting in this scenario, as he would have left his pitcher in too long in a playoff game. The pitchforks would be out. How could Baker have learned nothing since 2003?
It always goes back to 2003, when Baker and the Cubs blew the National League Championship Series against the Florida Marlins. Baker relied too hard on pitchers Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, both in the series and in general. They were allowed to reach unbelievably high pitch counts under Baker, got hurt and never were the same. Those injuries have followed Baker throughout his career.
Looking back at those workloads, it’s tough not to put some of the blame on Baker. But it’s also worth pointing out that he hasn’t repeated those mistakes since then. How many other pitchers have been ruined under his watch? Sure, Baker will sometimes leave guys in for 120 pitches, but those starts are now reserved for veterans like Scherzer, who can handle the workload.
It’s easier for many to make an “lol Dusty” joke rather than acknowledge that, though.
While Baker will come under fire if the Nats suffer another early postseason exit, it’s tough to blame many of their shortcomings on him in this series. There’s something else that deserves blame here — the Nats offense. Both Stephen Strasburg and Scherzer have turned in fantastic performances in Game 1 and Game 3, carrying no-hitters into the fifth inning. The offense has given them no run support.
That’s not Baker’s fault. His lineups, which are often criticized, have been a sabermetrician’s dream. Bryce Harper is batting second. Jayson Werth is batting below Anthony Rendon, Daniel Murphy and a resurgent Ryan Zimmerman. It’s just another example that Baker has adapted.
But that’s not a reality people are willing to confront. Following the loss, a Nationals blog pondered whether the team should wait on giving Baker an extension … just to see if a better manager becomes available.
Are there any managers from a 2017 postseason team that, if let go, you’d take a look at before finalizing an extension with Dusty?
— Citizens of Natstown (@CitsofNatstown) October 9, 2017
It’s not just team blogs, though, Baker’s reputation has had an impact within the game. He doesn’t currently have a contract for next season, even though he’s led the Nationals to the postseason both years he’s been on the job. Teams rarely allow their managers to enter a year with lame-duck status. The Nationals not only did that, but failed to correct the issue during the season.
That only magnifies the cries for Baker’s job. Baker’s next game in Washington could be his last. And the calls for his head will only get worse if the Nationals are knocked out early again. Whether deserved or not, Dusty will get the blame.
It will be the same ol’ narrative.
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