VIERA, Fla. — The players milled about in clusters, pairing off with friends and familiar faces like schoolyard cliques, and waited for the start of it all. They needed to kill a few minutes before practice started on Manager Matt Williams’s schedule, at 10 a.m. sharp. “Premature launch, but that’s okay,” Williams said, smiling, surrounded by his coaches. “First day.”
Wind pushed puffy clouds through a sky so bright that the horizon bordered on translucence. The Washington Nationals — all of them, the comfortable stars and the nervous prospects, the new additions and the Viera veterans — formed a grid and stretched for their first full-squad workout, the speck between last year’s disappointment and the chance at a fresh start.
“You got to start somewhere,” right fielder Jayson Werth said afterward. “Day 1.”
As Werth stretched in the back corner, Williams strolled toward him, leaning a bat on his left shoulder. Williams crouched next to Werth so he could hear him. Werth told his new manager that one discomforting detail in their morning meeting had surprised him. He wanted to know: Had the Nationals really finished 13th in the National League in defense last year?
At 8:45 a.m., the Nationals gathered in their clubhouse as Williams walked to the back of the room. At the top of the day’s schedule tacked to the wall, Williams had typed: “Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way.” On his first day in front of the whole team, Williams stressed defense, detail and aggression.
“What is our DNA as team?” Williams asked the 63 players in front of him. “We’ve got to establish that now.”
“We’re going to establish now in spring training what we’re going to be known for,” center fielder Denard Span said later, interpreting Williams’s message. “We want to be known for playing the game the right way, hustling. Making other teams feel uncomfortable when they play us. We don’t want any teams to like to see us on the schedule.”
After Williams addressed the team, the coaching staff laid out the day’s plan. Mark Weidemaier, the new defensive coach, proclaimed the importance of bunt plays. For emphasis, he told them they had finished 13th in fielding percentage, better than only two NL teams, and so they better pay attention. It stuck.
“If we were 13th in the league last year,” Werth said, “we can do better.”
In the meeting, a projection screen had been placed by the coaches. The monitor showed the details of where fielders moved as Weidemaier explained how to defend a bunt. It had Xs and Os, “like a football play,” Span said. Arrows pointed at which direction infielders should move. There was even an arrow pointing from the center fielder toward second base, where he needed to run to back up a possible throw.
“We’re way ahead of where we were last year with fundamentals,” lefty Ross Detwiler said. “Last year, it was chasing the big picture.”
Along with Williams’s emphasis, the Nationals’ outlook has brought them sharper focus. Last season, unfamiliar expectations and Davey Johnson’s “World Series or Bust” mantra weighed on them.
“We’re better than we were last year on paper, I think,” reliever Tyler Clippard said. “I think this year, it’s just more of the same. Last year was, ‘the new Nats, now they’re a good team.’ This year, it’s just more of the same. We know what to expect. It’s easier because we’ve been through it.”
Shortstop Ian Desmond felt a different kind of pressure Thursday. The crispness of the workout caused him to worry he would be the one to make a mistake and slow down a drill. He fielded groundballs as if every one carried importance. It was a good feeling.
“Last year, the pressure was on winning and being the best team, all the outside stuff,” Desmond said. “This year, the focus is on doing things the right way and not being the guy to deter our growth. Last year, we were more worried about the outside. This year, we’re more worried about the inside, keeping what we have going a well-oiled machine. It’s more internal focus as opposed to external focus.”
The workout hummed at a meticulous pace. Position players learned what pitchers and catchers found last week: Williams’s meticulous planning leaves no room for questions.
“I think I took a left [foot] step every odd second of the day,” Span said. “He definitely has a plan.”
The workout carried different meaning for different players. Outfielder Nate McLouth relaxed more around new teammates: “It’s actually relieving to be out on the field,” he said. Span felt assured in his second season with Washington: “It’s like a whole different world,” he said. Brian Goodwin, an outfield prospect invited to major league spring training for the first time, reveled in his chance.
“It’s awesome man,” Goodwin said. “You just go out during stretch. You get in the lines, and you get these guys at the heads of lines. You got Zimmerman. You got Strasburg. You got Werth. These are the guys I watch on TV all the time. These are the guys that are on ESPN every night when I’m about to go to sleep. It’s kind of surreal, almost.”
It was, of course, only the start. After the practice, Werth met with a semi-circle of reporters. As he broke away and walked to the shower, he turned his neck. “I’ll see you guys tomorrow,” he said. “And the next day. And the next day.”