Players, managers find ways to cope with postseason pressure
WASHINGTON, DC – Dave Martinez feels laid back this October, no longer able to parry pressure by getting jacked on java.
"I look at Starbucks and I have to close my eyes," the Washington Nationals manager said.
Coffee used to be a half-dozen-a-day obsession: three in the morning, one before heading to the ballpark, another after arriving at the stadium on his scooter and a finale to sip during the game. Then he had a cardiac catheterization in September.
"Ever since I had this little issue with my health, they took away my caffeine," Martinez said. "It's funny. The guys in the dugout always come up to me and they put their hand on my heart to see what's wrong. And I have to tell them all the time: Hey, I'm fine."
Washington's players have been chill under their manager's newly mellowed manner, winning eight straight postseason games and moving within two victories of becoming the first wild card World Series champion since 2014. The Nationals led Houston 2-0 going into Game 3 Friday night.
As much as players and managers tell themselves postseason games are games like any other, they know the stakes are much higher and have to find ways to cope. From April through September the sport forces perseverance, an acknowledgment that playing 162 games over 186 days necessitates a broad perspective.
And then comes October, when every pitch and every swing is magnified, hits and outs ceaselessly dissected.
Washington star Juan Soto, who turned 21 Friday, struck out on three pitches against Houston's Gerrit Cole in his first Series at-bat. Then he hit a tying home run leading off the fourth inning, hit a two-run double in the fifth and singled in the eighth to help spark Washington's 5-4 victory. Soto doubled and walked twice as the Nationals romped 12-3 in Game 2.
"In the first at-bat, I'm not going to lie, I felt a little bit shaky in my legs, but I just tried to control my emotions and tried to be focused in the game," Soto explained. "After the first at-bat, I just said, 'That's another baseball game.'"
Some players thrive. Yogi Berra had 12 homers and 39 RBIs in 75 Series games. Mickey Mantle hit 18 homers in 65 games and Reggie Jackson hit .357 with 10 homers in 27 games.
Jackson's postseason performance became part of his persona. When a reporter walked up to him in spring training this year and introduced herself by saying, "I'm April," he responded: "I'm October" — a reference to his Mr. October nickname.
Others wither, either momentarily or over long stretches. Houston's José Altuve, a two-run batting champion, swung at a Daniel Hudson slider nearly a foot outside late in the opener but is 4 for 10 over the first two games against the Nationals. Alex Rodriguez hit .235 with 23 RBIs in 61 postseason games other than in 2009, when he hit .265 with 18 RBIs and won his only World Series title with the Yankees.
"I'm 32 and I'm still nervous before every game of the postseason, every game," said Houston's Josh Reddick, who went 0 for 5 in the first two games. "I was holding my hand out, it was shaking a little bit. This is exciting. This is the World Series. Why wouldn't you want to be excited? But at the same time, nerves do kick in."
Reddick steps out of the batter's box, even leaves the dugout to "sit underneath the tunnel and just get away from the game a little bit." Not much has worked for the Astros batters in the League Championship Series against the Yankees or versus Washington pitchers. Houston entered Friday hitting .200 (55 for 275) in its previous eight games, and the Astros were 3 for 17 (.176) with runners in scoring position against the Nationals after going 5 for 46 (.109) vs. New York.
"Winning the at-bats when the game can turn is critical," Astros manager AJ Hinch said. "We've got to be better across the board in putting more pressure on them and maybe separating ourselves a little bit and having them feel what it's like to have a big inning put up against them."
Washington was hitting a best-in-the-majors .314 (27 for 86) with runners in scoring position in the postseason, the only team not disrupted by the higher level of postseason pitching — the Yankees were second at .246 and the Astros at just .175 (17 for 97).
Patrick Corbin, the Nationals' Game 4 started, credits Martinez for the clubhouse atmosphere that helped Washington overcome a 19-31 start.
"When things weren't going right, he didn't panic, he didn't do anything differently," Corbin said. "I feel like everyone is relaxed and even at this highest level."
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