Day 2: Every pitch we make is with conviction.
The new effects of first-year manager Williams will surface from the first day of spring, through sticky-hot summer months, into late fall and, the Nationals hope, the chill of late October. The first came on those sheets of paper: the blueprint for spring training, scheduled to the minute, regimented from now until the Nationals fly home March 27.
The skeleton of the Nationals’ spring training and the first hint of how Williams plans to run the Nationals can be found in his schedule. The Nationals under Davey Johnson trained in Viera with the primary aim of reaching April without injury. Practices were unstressed, players shifting from station to station run by coaches. Williams mapped out the Nationals’ spring training himself, calling coaches throughout the offseason to exchange ideas. He will stress defense, fundamentals and teamwork, and he knows exactly how. He does not find relaxed atmospheres in spring training inherently wrong; it just doesn’t suit him.
“I can’t do that,” Williams said. “For me, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for my personality, for me. It would be hard for me to allow that to happen – good, bad or indifferent. Everybody has their own way. But for my personality, I need a little more structure than that. That’s what I’m trying to provide here. And we can adjust within the schedule, too. Structure-wise, I have to have this so I don’t lay awake at night. We’ve got a plan, anyway.”
The Nationals embraced Williams’s outlook from the top of the organization. In a radio interview in January, Nationals owner Mark Lerner shared his belief that the Nationals had been too lackadaisical during spring training under Johnson. It might have been a revisionist view — the Nationals, after all, started 14-4 under Johnson on their way to a 98-win romp to the playoffs in 2012. Still, Lerner insisted Williams’s organized approach factored into his hiring.
“The way we handled spring training [last year] was not as good as it could be,” Lerner said. “It wasn’t as disciplined as it could be. I think we’ll go into this year, Matt is very meticulous and, like the Marines, he has every day planned out, and I think you need that. You’ve got to play every game from April 1 like it’s a playoff game, and you just can’t go in there [thinking] you’ll get moving in May, June. It doesn’t happen that way. So I think it was a lot of lessons learned by everybody in the organization, that you have to come in 1,000 percent prepared.”
Once the Nationals start their full squad workouts Feb. 20, their everyday structure will remain constant. They will stretch and play to warm up. A team fundamental drill will follow. They will break into groups for an individual fundamental drill and then individual defensive work. Then they’ll take batting practice. During a break, from 11 a.m. to 11:15 a.m., players will sign autographs for fans in a specified area. Williams believes the practices can be efficient and relatively brief, from 10 a.m. to 12:25 p.m.
“There’s no reason to stay out there all day. It’s overkill,” Williams said. “If we can be efficient and we can be to the point, then we can get it all accomplished, get everything we need accomplished that day, and move on to the next.”
Within the structure, Williams will emphasize defense. In the team fundamental portion, the Nationals will practice relay plays, rundowns, stopping base runners from taking extra bases and bunt plays. He will group all of them together with a “situational defense” drill. A coach will call out a situation, and fielders will have to react based on outs, the location of base runners and where the ball is. The plays will unfold in rapid succession.
“It makes them think quickly,” Williams said. “It makes them get ready for the season, because it’s going to happen quickly. We’ll do that three or four times over the course of spring, too.”
At the top of each daily schedule for spring training, Williams printed either a quote or a “word of the day.”
The quote for the first full squad workout, for instance, is: “Lead, follow or get the hell out of the way.”
On other days, there will be a word of the day. In interviews after practice, Williams and players may have to mix in, say, the word “violet” into interviews, even at the risk of making little sense.
“We have to have the ability to enjoy what we’re doing,” Williams said. “I want them to embrace the process of this. And there’s meaning behind that. The process of going through spring training, 13 days for the pitchers and catchers, of working every day before they even get a chance to see somebody in a different uniform, is long. But if we embrace the process of all the stuff we’re going to do, then they’re prepared to take the next step.”
Williams wants the Nationals to have fun and enjoy their lives outside of spring training. But in the months since the Nationals hired him and the first days of spring, Williams has not thought much about that part.
“The bus leaves at 8:30 a.m. for Port St. Lucie on Day 41,” Williams said. “And then we fly to Washington.”