As far as meaningless baseball games go, those playing out this weekend at Nationals Park are full of substantive issues. The current version of the Washington Nationals won’t be seen in these parts again. Friday night, Jordan Zimmermann threw his last pitch wearing a home Nationals jersey. It wasn’t acknowledged. Monday afternoon, Ian Desmond will play his home finale. Will he be afforded the opportunity to thank the fans for whom he played his entire career, to tip his cap before he’s removed?
Making time for such moments requires feel and touch, two qualities lacking around the Nationals as this season deteriorated into a quagmire, with the final thud of elimination from the postseason coming Saturday.
There will be dissection of this mess, internally and externally, in the days and weeks ahead. Ceremonial gestures won’t be high on the list of concerns. What will be: Manager Matt Williams, and the reality that he lost this clubhouse.
General Manager Mike Rizzo has declined the opportunity to speak about his manager’s future over the course of this, the final homestand of the year. The decision, Rizzo said, will be made after the season.
Rizzo has defended Williams for much of this year, balancing the temptation to point out how many games from how many key players the Nationals lost to injury with his understanding that, with October a week away and nothing but tee times to make, that sounds like an excuse. But if Rizzo listens to his players — many of whom spoke about their feelings this past week, but on the condition they not be identified — he will hear questions not just of strategy, but of the fundamental qualities that hold teams together, questions of communication and trust.
This may not be something that Williams, who won 96 games and the National League’s manager of the year award in 2014, fully grasps as 2015 sputters to a close. He has, since the day he arrived, spoken of the need to treat each day, each game, the same. Friday, before Zimmermann’s final home start of the year — and, given his impending free agency, final home start of a Nationals career in which he is the franchise’s all-time leader in wins, starts and innings pitched — Williams was asked about how to keep a clubhouse together.
“I look at the last three days,” he said, and he recounted a couple of balls swatted by Jayson Werth. Three feet one way, four feet the other, and maybe Werth has a pair of doubles and the Nationals sweep the Orioles, rather than get swept by them.
“Was that an opportunity missed?” Williams said. “Of course. But there’s certain things in the game you can’t control, either.”
Forget that Williams answered nothing about how to keep a clubhouse together, and understand that there are certain things in the game you can control. One would be the atmosphere created each day at the ballpark.
These Nationals entered the season as a veteran group, one that should largely be relied upon to create its own culture. So what, in this case, does “losing the clubhouse” even mean? Baseball is the most individual of team sports, and whether a particular hitter succeeds against a particular pitcher in a given at-bat has little to do with whether he gets along with the man who dresses next to him or the man who sits behind the desk in the manager’s office.
But the manager still establishes tenor and tone, an environment that is either embraced and cultivated by the club’s veterans — or rejected. Williams was hired, in part, because he came to his interview with a meticulous plan, with each day of spring training mapped out. Some players now wonder whether that management of minutia leaves him unable to adjust, to think on the fly. They describe him as “tense,” both in the dugout and, particularly, after losses.
“The funny thing is,” one player said, “when you see him away from the park he’s totally different.”
So try to quantify the unquantifiable: What impact do a manager and his attitude have on a clubhouse, even an established clubhouse such as Washington’s?
“A couple of years ago, I wouldn’t have thought it made any difference,” one player said this past week. “But after what we’ve been through for two years? It’s huge. Huge.”
The manager, of course, is easy pickings when seasons go awry. The Nationals knew when they hired Williams that they would need to be patient, that they would need to give him room and opportunity to grow because — other than a stint in the Arizona Fall League and five weeks as a replacement in Class AA in 2007 — he had never managed.
Now, several Nationals players believe Williams won’t be able to grow even if the club brings him back for 2016. And this isn’t just one or two malcontents. These opinions span positions and experience. “It’s a terrible environment,” one player said. “And the amazing part is everybody feels that way.”
This, then, is the backdrop of the final two home games, not to mention the early part of the offseason, now just more than a week away. Friday afternoon, as the Nationals finished batting practice, Williams headed down the dugout steps when a fan stopped him.
“Matt, thanks for everything,” he said. “See you in the spring.”
Williams gave him a thumb’s up. “Thanks for your support,” Williams said. He walked toward the clubhouse, where the same level of support does not exist.