Sunday afternoon, Matt Williams revealed the Nationals’ opening day lineup – the first he ever scrawled as a big league manager – to his players. Catcher Wilson Ramos shifted his eyes down the batting order and stopped when he reached the cleanup spot. He saw his own name, and he felt a jolt.
“I feel surprised,” Ramos said. “But I’m ready. It feels great right now. It feels good right now at the plate. I believe in what I can do, and I know I can do a good job in that spot.”
Williams had decided two weeks ago that he viewed Ramos as his opening day cleanup hitter, but most observers still had the same reaction as Ramos: surprise, and a raised eyebrow. Not only will Ramos bat fourth for just the fifth time in his career, but he will also bat one spot ahead of Bryce Harper, the 22-year-old many have pegged as an MVP candidate.
Williams repeated all spring that he sees the lineup as fluid. He will seek small edges and make minor tweaks based on the opponent and starting pitcher. But he also indicated he could keep Ramos and Harper batting fourth and fifth for a while.
“We would like to have everybody in a spot where they’re comfortable and leave them there,” Williams said. “The reality is, that’s not going to happen. We’ll see how it goes. We certainly have spots to flip, 5 and 7. Depending on who’s pitching, we can flip those spots. It’s going to change from day to day depending on who’s playing and who we’re facing. We would like to leave them in one spot if we possibly could.”
Williams batted Harper fifth frequently during the spring. He believes Harper will be unburdened to hit for power batting fifth and he will be able to steal more bases – if he is on base when the Nos. 3 and 4 hitters are up, he would be less inclined to risk an out.
The drawback is, the Nationals are taking at-bats from one of their best hitters by placing him lower in the order. Their second hitters received 722 plate appearances last season, compared to 671 for fifth hitters. Still, Williams believe Harper fits best at fifth.
“The ability to open his game if we want to open his game a little bit,” Williams said. “It’s interesting to see what Bryce can do. He has the ability to beat the other team in a lot of different ways. He’s hit there a lot this spring. He’s had a lot of opportunities to drive runs in.
“There’s no one reason why. We want him in situations where he can win games for us. That’s a good spot for him. And that will change, too, from time to time.”
While even Ramos felt surprise at hitting cleanup, perhaps it should have been expected. Ramos is not the same kind of household name as Jayson Werth or Harper, but he possesses as much potential for power as almost anyone in the lineup. He hit a home run every 17.9 at-bats last season, the seventh-highest rate among NL hitters with at least 300 plate appearances. “Watch him take batting practice,” one Nationals player said.
The Nationals also believe Ramos has a knack for driving in runs, capable of hitting sac flies on demand. Williams acknowledged context drives RBI totals more than any factor. “I think RBI guys, it’s a function of where you’re at in the lineup and who’s on base in front of you,” he said. But the manager also noted Ramos’s penchant for scoring runners.
“His ability to drive a run in is important to me, and to us,” Williams said.
Lower down the lineup, Anthony Rendon will bat eighth, a tacit acknowledgment that he earned the starting second base job in a spring competition with Danny Espinosa. Williams still views Espinosa as a crucial piece of the team. He will play “regularly,” Williams said. “I want to see Danny in there. We’re going to try to pick matchups for Danny, and for Anthony, too. They’re both going to get ample opportunity to play.”
Both Espinosa and Rendon, then, will learn what Ramos discovered Sunday afternoon.
“We have to be ready for every day for what we’ll see when we get to the stadium,” Ramos said.