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Williams makes impression on first day

Feb 15, 2014, 6:27 PM EST

Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER

VIERA, Fla. — Matt Williams has been coming to spring training for more than two decades, so you’d think he’d know the drill by now and wouldn’t be surprised by anything thrown his way.

This, however, was different. Williams stepped onto the practice fields outside Space Coast Stadium on Saturday morning not as a power-hitting third baseman, not as a coach barking out specific instructions to a small group of players but as a big-league manager, responsible for overseeing 63 guys in uniform.

The end result was … well, not necessarily what the 48-year-old expected.

“I was telling the coaching staff that I had a bad day today, because I didn’t get to pick up a fungo and I didn’t get to throw any batting practice,” said Williams, who couldn’t sleep Friday night and wound up arriving at the ballpark at 5 a.m. “So it’s completely odd for me. Usually I’m out there and my hands have blisters and all that stuff. But it’s part of my adjustment process.”

On the surface, the Nationals’ first pitchers and catchers workout under Williams looked a whole lot like their first pitchers and catchers workout under Davey Johnson in 2012. Players stretched and played catch. Groups of pitchers threw off bullpen mounds while others worked on bunting and defensive drills. Catchers took batting practice. Everybody ran through conditioning exercises to wrap up.

Look closer, though, and you could find the subtle differences. Everything was structured down to the minute. Pitchers were put through a more rigorous fielding practice than in the past. Position players who reported early held their own workout inside the ballpark. And instead of making the quarter-mile walk from the stadium to the practice fields, everyone was transported via carts.

In short, no time was wasted. Just as Williams promised.

“I felt more structure, more direction,” reliever Tyler Clippard said. “I think that’s the thing we need and he brings to the table.”

The morning began with a scene that will play out far more frequently under Williams than his predecessor: a team meeting. His message?

“Just that everything starts with them; everything starts with the guy who holds the baseball,” the rookie skipper said. “That we’re going to do it with conviction. And that we’re prepared every time that they take the mound. It was short and sweet. We’ll get into a bigger meeting when everybody gets here, but I thought it was good.”

Nationals players, curious to get their first taste of their new manager, came away impressed.

“He’s the type of guy that, he’s just about his business,” left-hander Gio Gonzalez said. “He wants to go out there and win. I think he’s going to have his fun. He’s gonna let us enjoy our time. But at the same time, once we cross those lines, it’s game time.”

It’s common for players, especially young ones fighting for jobs, to try too hard to make a positive impression on the first day of spring training. Williams actually found himself trying to do too much on his first day as manager. Instead of merely watching pitchers he hadn’t ever seen before throw bullpen sessions, he started formulating in his mind what roles they might hold on his staff come April and beyond.

“My brain starts going a million miles an hour,” he said. “Roles. How would you use this guy? What kind of stuff does he have? And how would it play in a major-league game on our staff? All those things. It’s a bit early for that. … But I think it’s natural for me to go there. The rest of the staff may have to rein me in a little bit.”

There will be plenty of time over the next six weeks for Williams to make those kind of evaluations. For now, he can go home and try to get a good night’s rest, knowing this day he anticipated for so long is behind him and a full, unblemished baseball season awaits.

“My biggest thing right now is: I’m really looking forward to tomorrow,” he said. “We have the other group, the B group, is going to throw their bullpens tomorrow. The day after that, we’ll start getting them into their bunt plays, things like that. There’s something new every day. I’m really looking forward to that.”

  1. positivelyhalfst - Feb 15, 2014 at 6:48 PM

    Davey Johnson is my favorite manager of all time, both for his time with the Mets and the Nats. I am really grateful for the chance to enjoy him again with the team I adopted when they came into existence in my adopted home town. However, I find the hiring of Matt Williams to be bold (unlike hiring a retread failure like Jim Riggleman), and for better or worse at the end of the year I will need to remember that I applauded it at the beginning. I hope that the team sticks with him for a number of years if he shows promise.

  2. Eugene in Oregon - Feb 15, 2014 at 7:56 PM

    Let’s hope the impression of Mr. Williams we all have in October is equally positive. GYFNG!

  3. David Proctor - Feb 15, 2014 at 8:03 PM

    This excerpt from Kilgore’s article had me cracking up.

    “Pitching coach Steve McCatty tried to get Gonzalez to slow down. “I’m just trying to make the team,” Gonzalez replied.”

    I love Gio.

    • David Proctor - Feb 15, 2014 at 8:08 PM

      Strasburg was almost effusive in his praise for Matt Williams, too.

      “I thought it was extremely well-run out there,” pitcher Stephen Strasburg said. “Attention to detail, it wasn’t, like, overkill, but as far as the instruction, they broke everything down. They talked about doing bunt plays and having all of us [pitchers] play positions, just so we know every guy is doing. I thought that’s genius.”

      • Eugene in Oregon - Feb 15, 2014 at 8:13 PM

        Stephen Strasburg would have loved Earl Weaver.

  4. Sonny G 10 - Feb 15, 2014 at 9:31 PM

    Sounds like a good start. I love hearing positive things from the players. I like to think we are witnessing the genesis of a hall of fame manager. Rosy eyeglasses, anyone. :)

  5. ArVAFan - Feb 15, 2014 at 9:38 PM

    From Seeing-Eye Single (Mark, you ran right past them–so you almost met. I think you probably know who they are):

    Weidemeier was coaching the pitchers on getting off the mound to handle comebackers. He was working with them on specific footwork and glove positioning to reduce the risk of a dropped ball or throwing error.

    For the bunting practice for pitchers, the coaches simulated a wind-up, then dropped the ball into the pitching machine. Looked odd, but it worked to help with timing and accuracy.

    From me: expect to be there tomorrow in my t-shirt, and with any luck, on time, and in good weather. We have the door open listening to the waves in Melbourne. Maybe, given the Wi-Fi, I could just work here until actual spring in DC?

    • Sonny G 10 - Feb 15, 2014 at 9:48 PM

      Loving your commentary ArVAFan. Please keep it coming.

  6. nats1924 - Feb 16, 2014 at 8:13 AM

    Any news on where we stand with Desi and JZim extensions?

    I think their deadlines is approaching, if not passed

    • Jb - Feb 16, 2014 at 8:40 AM

      Chill. They’re two years out from free agency. And there is no deadline.

  7. JayB - Feb 16, 2014 at 8:17 AM

    but as far as the instruction, they broke everything down. They talked about doing bunt plays and having all of us [pitchers] play positions, just so we know every guy is doing. I thought that’s genius.”…….SO WHAT DID DAVEY DO? That is the obvious question here Mark…..if Matt if the number one story in Spring Training then context is what is needed.

    • Jb - Feb 16, 2014 at 8:39 AM

      Davey delegated the planning and running of ST 2013 to Randy Knorr. You could look it up, then start blaming Randy instead of Davey. Perhaps this has a lot to do with Knorr not being the manager now.

      • JayB - Feb 16, 2014 at 9:03 AM

        Delegating you job and allowing it to be ineffective does not get you a pass on your leadership JD

    • sjm308 - Feb 16, 2014 at 8:57 AM

      What does looking back at what someone who is not a part of the situation do? Except give you another opportunity to bitch.

    • unkyd59 - Feb 16, 2014 at 9:05 AM

      Really? That’s the question? I hope you’re not holding your breath, waiting for anyone (besides you) to ask that question)…. ST is all about “now”… Even last years playoff teams are looking forward… That is all.

      • sjm308 - Feb 16, 2014 at 10:18 AM

        agree!!! why dwell on past issues – you can learn from your mistakes but you need to look forward, not rehash what was – it accomplishes little

    • Section 222 - Feb 16, 2014 at 9:39 AM

      All the talk about how different this ST is, how well planned it is, how rigorous it is, etc. is an implicit indictment of Davey’s leadership, as is the team’s poor showing last year for that matter. I don’t think we’re going to get anything more than that, and there certainly is no need for Mark to ask questions about it or the players to be more explicit.

      • JayB - Feb 16, 2014 at 9:52 AM

        No need to dig with players just having Mark provide the context with players comments gives you the perspective on why Williams is the number one story as Mark ranked them. Example would be strass comment with example from Davey’s work on bunt plays and then example of blown plays that cost wins last year. That is the job right? All the info is there for Mark

      • unkyd59 - Feb 16, 2014 at 9:56 AM


  8. Section 222 - Feb 16, 2014 at 8:39 AM

    It’s concerning that Williams was trying to do too much on the first day. He needs to stay within himself. But give 110%.

    • natsfan1a - Feb 16, 2014 at 3:48 PM

      Also, he’s gotta play ’em one day at a time; give it his best shot, and, the good Lord willing, things will work out. I imagine he’s just happy to be there. Hope he can help the ballclub. 😉





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