Washington Nationals are Matt Williams team now, in every sense

All spring, Manager Matt Williams used the word “aggressive” to describe the style of baseball he wanted the Washington Nationals to play. “Pressure the opponent,” he said. Such words sound wonderfully martial and territorial. What could be wrong with that? If pedal-to-metal suits a team’s talents and makeup, it’s a huge advantage.

For three games against the Mets, Williams’s defensive shifts stole hits. His varying lineups — a mix of stats and gut instinct — clicked every day. Players who were batting in not quite the spot you might expect got big hits. When he burned the book, like letting a rookie, Aaron Barrett, make his MLB debut in the bottom of the ninth of a tied game on the road, it not only worked, Barrett got a win. Nothing was crazy. Everything had a reason. But Williams sure wasn’t passive or timid, either.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

However, that approach is far from risk-free, as Friday’s 2-1 loss to the Braves illustrated. Just hours before the game, the Nats weren’t sure that Jordan Zimmermann, who had been sick, could pitch. For a century, if that happened in the fourth game of a season, there always would be plenty of available pitchers. How can a manager be out of starting pitchers by Friday of Week 1? But the Nats almost were; they had a game plan to use a “bullpen committee,” starting with Craig Stammen and Jerry Blevins and leading to who knows what if extra innings came. But Zimmermann gutted out five tough innings, so a tired bullpen was avoided.

Another Williams mantra has been to look for extra bases. Of course, sometimes that aggressive search ends in extra outs. The Nats gave away three outs on the bases — and maybe the game with it.

Before the game, farm director Bob Boone said: “Matt’s style suits this club. He has a personality that meshes with the team. That’s extremely important.

Former manager “Davey [Johnson] didn’t do anything [on the bases]. He wasn’t afraid; he just thought it was better to wait for three-run homers. His only fear was giving up an extra out.”

It’ll take six months to find out whether that mesh between athletic players such as Denard Span, Bryce Harper, Ian Desmond, Jayson Werth, Danny Espinosa, Nate McLouth and even Ryan Zimmerman, whom Williams put in motion three times in one at-bat on Thursday, creates havoc for foes or for the Nats themselves. My guess is it’ll work fine but not immediately. And the learning curve will have a price.

In the second inning, Atlanta pitched out, perhaps after stealing a sign, to nail Harper stealing. Ian Desmond was thrown out stealing third — with no outs. What? Rule 1, probably posted by Mugsy McGraw in 1901: Don’t steal the manager’s tobacco. Rule 2: Never make the first out at third base.

“We want to take advantage when it’s there for us, but we also want to make sure that we’re sure,” Williams said. “It was a little overaggressive.”

So check the Bobby Cox Box next to the Big Marine’s name: The whole world, including the player, can know the player is dead wrong, but Matt has his back.

Also, third base coaches are always an extension of the manager’s intentions. Bobby Henley got Adam LaRoche thrown out at the plate by 10 feet, neutering a second-and-third one-out rally. Some players run like they are carrying a piano. LaRoche runs like he’s carrying the truck that the piano came in. The only teammate he’s faster than is named “Buffalo.” Please, exempt him from the Aggression Mission.

“They made two perfect [relay] throws,” Williams said. “I have no problem with sending” LaRoche.

Okay, check that Cox Box twice! While Williams may protect his men, he takes full responsibility himself, which is crucial to being a risk-loving manager. He wants to go after the slightest advantage, then assume the responsibility.

Williams’s approach includes shifting the batting order more than was anticipated in Viera. Partly that’s due to Wilson Ramos’s injury. But it’s also by inclination and stat study. Twice in four games, he has batted Harper sixth against righties. That’s not where The Mick hit by his third season.

How many factors influence lineup construction? “There’s a million of ’em, a book this thick,” Williams said, holding his fingers two inches apart. “That doesn’t mean anything. That doesn’t mean [Harper] isn’t a fantastic player. . . . His timing is just a tick off right now.”

Perhaps the purest example so far of the Nats having gone to the Mattresses is the text Williams received from Zimmermann just 14 hours before his first home game as manager in D.C. Jordan said his fever broke and he probably could pitch. Williams didn’t beg him. And he was perfectly willing to run out a game full of relievers. Has any first-year manager ever run out of starting pitchers by his fourth game? More indicative of Williams, has any manager run that risk — and barely seemed bothered by it?

“A bullpen game” usually means that someone hasn’t managed the grand plan perfectly. Such possibilities give managers ulcers and, over time, often sap their courage and will to attack. Sooner or later, their sensible plans — sensible under most circumstances, anyway — run into an outlier event, and the manager looks like a goof. To prevent that 1 percent chance of embarrassment, and a data point for “Fire The Bum” critics to cite, they often run shy in a hundred tiny but important decisions. Currently, Williams is 10,000 miles from that point.

In spring training, before Doug Fister was back from an injury, Williams moved established starter Ross Detwiler to the bullpen. When Fister got injured again, Williams kept Detwiler in the ’pen and put two kids in his rotation with no emergency sixth starter as part of his staff. Instead, he used the last spot on his staff for Barrett, who had never been above AA. What if he’s as good as he looks?

On Friday, Barrett struck out Dan Uggla and Evan Gattis on sliders that gave them whiplash. Many a vet manager would have ducked saying, “The long-shot rookie makes my team.” Now, with both Detwiler and Barrett added to five established relievers, the Nats may come closer to equaling the Braves in games decided by bullpens. It didn’t work on Friday, but they meet 18 more times.

“Matt’s been just as expected: direct, aggressive by nature. He wants to apply pressure,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “Two-tenths of a run is huge. That’s what we are trying to create.”

The next six months will show whether those exciting rewards — by gambling for two-tenths of a run here (an extra base taken) and two-tenths there (a base hit stolen) — are worth the risks. Will Natitude and Mattitude mesh?

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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