Matt Williams wanted to find out about managing in the big leagues, but maybe not quite this fast.
In a fraction of a season, he’s had as many injuries, mysterious failures, clunker games, clubhouse meetings, errors and benchings as he might expect in a whole year. So, Williams was badly in need of a hug — and a come-from-behind win in the ninth — when he got back home to Arizona on Monday with his Nationals.
Arizona played a scoreboard video tribute to Williams, a five-time all-star and four-time Gold Glover. The Nats watched their manager’s homers and acrobatic plays from not so long ago. Some had a “so that’s who he is” look on their faces while watching the only man to homer in the World Series for three teams.
Then the Nats, after three horrid games in Oakland, got homers from emergency reserves Tyler Moore, Danny Espinosa and Kevin Frandsen to grab their 11th come-from-behind win of the year. No, the Nats never quit on Williams. Isn’t that often the top criterion for judging baseball leadership? When a team is swamped with problems but still pulls together, isn’t that proof Williams still “has the room”?
Probably. It’s impossible not to respect Williams and tough not to like him. But he’s faced dozens of pop quizzes already. He’s coping, passing, but he hasn’t aced many tests yet.
Because Nats GM Mike Rizzo has such a long history with Williams from their Arizona days, he probably has a multiyear leash no matter what the Nats’ record this year. Fielders can look like tangle-footed oafs (no insult meant to oafs). Starters can give up first-inning, three-run bombs until you wonder if they should arrive in a clown car (no offense to clowns). None of it will change Williams’s status anytime soon.
However, early returns raise fair questions. Much of what Williams was tasked to fix — defense, fundamentals, base running, situational hitting — has stayed broken or gotten worse. And new problems have arrived, like early-inning monster deficits. But, please note, in every case the line of causality between Williams and The Problem is vague or even nonexistent. A year from now, every current pratfall could be attributed to luck, small-sample distortion or coincidence.
After all, what’s terrible about 20-18? That record, entering Tuesday night, was better than seven of the 10 teams that made the 2013 playoffs. The Yanks and Angels, too. No May panic allowed.
But a certain bonehead-play ghost haunts the Nats. Has anyone ever said, “Maybe it’s the players a lot more than the manager?”
On Saturday, the Nats may have lost a game because Rafael Soriano cut off a perfect throw to the plate when he should have backed up home. Williams called him out afterward. Soriano owned up. The next day the Nats trailed 7-0 after two innings amid defensive buffoonery and a pair of 3-0 pitch, three-run homers by ex-Nat farmhand Derek Norris off Gio Gonzalez. You can’t look worse. Gonzalez hurled his glove and hat (both high and outside), then tried to go after someone in his dugout.
Yet the next night the Nats played one of their best games. Which team are they? Or are they both?
If the team and manager get through this dizzying spring intact, if Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche hit once they get off the DL, if rusty Wilson Ramos rediscovers his stroke and if Doug Fister pitches as he always has, the Nats may view these weeks as a constructive trial by fire, a forced bonding between them and their manager. But did you count all those “ifs”?
Williams has to wonder if the game is smirking at him. His opening day lineup has lost more games to injury than any in baseball. His cleanup hitter lasted seven innings of Game 1. Within days of benching Bryce Harper for not hustling, the 21-year-old disabled himself for two months sliding headfirst in a 5-0 game. Again, Williams isn’t the cause, but he’s in the photo.
Last week, Williams asked his hottest hitter if he thought he could keep playing every day with a barking quad muscle. The vet said, “Yes,” so, Williams said, “Okay.” Was it a mini-suicide pact between old-school guys trying to out-tough each other? That strategy ended with LaRoche on the disabled list.
The biggest cream pie in the face has been the defense, so far even worse than ’13. The more extra fielding practices the detail-oriented manager held in spring training and now even before some road games, the more the Nats bumble. Baseball’s easiest act is routine defense, unless you’re analyzing it as you do it. What was Williams supposed to do, drill less? Of course not. But how is “more” working?
The theories on defensive positioning that Williams espouses, complete with a new coach in charge of telling people where to stand, has resulted in the third-worst defensive efficiency in baseball, 10 spots lower than in ’13. If he had his fielders play on each other’s shoulders they’d reach more balls.
Will the law of averages come to the Nats’ rescue? And when?
The Nats are just 11 / 2 games out of first place. As rough as Williams’s initiation has been, 100 games from now the final verdict on his ’14 Nats will probably still be “undetermined.” It’s earlier than early.
But when a contending team hires a rookie manager who has no personal history with the club he inherits, there is risk of major error. Familiarity has value that’s hard to measure. Tyler Clippard owns lefty hitters, except Raul Ibanez. Williams knew the first half, not the second. So he didn’t call in a lefty: three-run double, ballgame lost.
Part of managing is being dumb lucky. So far, Williams has been smart unlucky. What he does, and sometimes he does seem a bit overactive, always has logic to it. Yet, in the short run, stupid baseball happenstance can be a trip wire that mocks any rational plan.
Luckily, baseball is the ultimate long-run game. Sooner or later, you get the truth. That’s why, for one first-year manager, the sweetest of all possible words are these: still 123 games left to play.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.