The Nationals’ first day of workouts started at dawn, as players filtered into their clubhouse and changed into red-and-blue practice uniforms. A crowd gathered around the television on a wall by the entrance, transfixed on the USA-Russia hockey game. At 9 a.m. sharp, Manager Matt Williams walked to the center of the room and the TV turned off. No one complained.
“He’s a little intense,” said Ross Detwiler, perhaps the biggest hockey fan on the team, said of the first-year manager. “You can’t really lobby him.”
“It’s baseball,” Williams said later. “It’s time to go.”
Williams had arrived at 5 a.m., the second man in the building – when he arrived, third base coach Bobby Henley was already seated at a coaches conference table, clad in full uniform. But Williams had no big speech planned.
“Just that everything starts with them, everything starts with the guy who holds the baseball,” Williams said. “That we’re going to do it with conviction and that we’re prepared every time that they take the mound. So it was short and sweet. We’ll get into a bigger meeting when everybody gets here, but I thought it was good.”
It may not have been much in Williams’s mind, but his meeting captured his players’ attention.
“He’s very deliberate in his tone,” Stephen Strasburg said. “He said, ‘Hey, Day 1, it starts right now. It’s time to get to work.’ You could tell the intensity was there. It got me a little fired up. It was a pretty easy day today, but I’m excited for when the hitters get here, get out there facing guys and get this thing going.”
As Nationals pitchers and catchers lined up and played catch, Williams walked along a foul line next to Livan Hernandez, who is here partly as a coach and partly as a jolly ambassador.
“How we looking?” Hernandez asked.
“We’re looking good,” Williams said. “We got some arms, man.”
The first group to take the mound for bullpen sessions included Gio Gonzalez alongside about 20 feet of pitcher – Taylor Jordan (6-4), Chris Young (6-10) and Doug Fister (6-8). “He’s the point guard,” one coach remarked about Gonzalez.
Pitching coach Steve McCatty tried to get Gonzalez to slow down. “I’m just trying to make the team,” Gonzalez replied.
“He doesn’t listen to me,” McCatty said jokingly. “He’s a punk.”
In his first pitches in a Nationals uniform, Fister looked sharp. Pitching coordinator Spin Williams said to him between pitches, “Looks like you’ve been throwing.” Fister replied, “a little bit.”
The most promising sign of the first day came in the next group. Christian Garcia, who missed all of last season with a forearm strain and a hamstring pull, completed his session without issue. That would normally be unremarkable, but last year Garcia hurt himself before he finished his first session in the bullpen.
“I got further than I did last year,” Garcia said.
“We were talking earlier about, can you judge somebody from watching them the first day?” McCatty said. “Not really, because it’s the first day, everybody is really excited. But somebody back from an injury, like Christian has, you see the motion is there, everything there, that was really good.”
Williams watched the pitchers intently. As groups shifted between stations, he chatted with a fan who was posted on a fence, watching pitchers take bunting practice. It would probably be unwise to read anything into this, but Williams stationed himself directly behind Jordan in the first group and Garcia in the second.
“Well, my brain starts going a million miles an hour,” Williams 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 and all those things. It’s a bit early for that. But that’s where it goes. So I’ll embrace that part of it and say that’s okay. I’ll run through those scenarios a million times and then meet with [McCatty], meet with Spin and the rest of the staff and we’ll make a plan from there.”
As the bullpen sessions took place, other groups of pitchers moved from station to station. Field 1 belonged to Mark Weidemaier, the new defensive coach Williams brought with him from Arizona. He talked trash, made off-color jokes and whacked comebackers for pitchers to field. He kind of reminded you of the pitching coach from “Rookie Of The Year,” played by Daniel Stern.
One Nationals player aptly described Weidemaier thusly: “Three Red Bulls and 15 F-bombs.”
By the end of the day, Williams had made a strong first impression on his players. “I thought it was extremely well-run out there,” Strasburg said. “Attention to detail, it wasn’t, like, overkill, but as far as the instruction, they broke everything down.”
Through some nerves, Williams had also made it through his first day.
“I think my biggest thing right now is,” Williams said, “I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.”