At this point of the Washington Nationals’ dismaying season, Matt Williams can’t escape the reaction. When the second-year manager completed his postgame news conference following Tuesday’s collapse to the New York Mets, some booing came from behind the glass in an adjacent room reserved for exclusive fans. More derision rained down from the stands when he walked toward the mound in Wednesday’s loss to remove Stephen Strasburg from the game.
When a season of high expectations sputters, everything comes under scrutiny. There are many reasons the Nationals’ playoff chances are down to a long shot after getting swept by the Mets this week. Injuries, a roster with holes, underperforming players, defensive miscues and pitching inconsistencies have all undermined the season. But Williams, the 2014 National League manager of the year, has fallen under a particular scrutiny for matters of both strategy and style.
“It’s completely natural,” he said, seated on the couch in his office at Nationals Park before Wednesday’s game. “I said when [General Manager] Mike [Rizzo] hired me, ‘Who wouldn’t want to have these expectations?’ It means you’ve got a good club. So it’s part of it. It goes with the territory. If we don’t meet them, then it’s dissatisfying.”
Rizzo, whose job is considered safe, refused earlier this week to talk about Williams’s job status beyond the end of this season. “We have 25 games left,” Rizzo said. “Matt Williams is our manager, and he’s going to lead us through this stretch. I’ve always supported him. We’re not going to talk about 2016 while 2015 is ongoing.”
In the clubhouse, there is a sense among some players of indifference toward their manager. Players understand Williams was in a challenging position: a first-time manager tasked with leading a World Series favorite, but they also see in-game decisions that have backfired. Some privately have questioned playing time choices and pitcher usage. And sometimes lack of playing time, a quick hook from a game or in-game strategic call from the dugout can be interpreted as a lack of confidence.
“Each game presents itself,” Williams said. “For me, it’s about putting a guy in a situation to succeed, whatever that is. Ultimately, that’s my job: try to put them in a spot where they can have success. There’s a lot of questions and different thoughts on things.”
Several players have described Williams as tense during games. But how that affects players varies. Managers are in charge of setting the tone for a team, and players often follow those cues. Some Nationals said Williams’s style has had an impact even if they tried not to let it, while others said his personality shouldn’t affect them.
“For me, personally, it doesn’t affect me,” said one player who spoke on condition of anonymity. “That’s his personality, and we can’t change that. I think everyone should focus on their style, whatever that is. It shouldn’t affect the way we play. We’re professionals. We’re paid to do a job.”
Williams said he didn’t consider himself tense. “Not any more so than anybody else,” he said.
Many Nationals played under other managers, such as Davey Johnson, who eased pressure with a light-hearted style and big personality. But to some observers, Williams’s predecessor’s laid-back style contributed to the Nationals’ disappointing 2013 season. Williams brought a quieter personality, meticulous planning and a by-the-book managing approach in 2014, and the Nationals won the National League East. This year, they’re in danger of missing the playoffs. No single approach is the universal answer.
Injuries, a weaker bullpen and underperforming veterans put more pressure on Williams this year. With heightened expectations and less margin for error, questions about his in-game decisions first heard last season and that reappeared in the playoffs grew louder.
“I’ve been fine with every situation he’s managed with me personally,” said Jonathan Papelbon, a reliever whose usage under Williams since he was acquired in a trade has come under question. “I’m a big communicator with him and never had any problem with him or any of that. Always had good rapport with him since I’ve been over here. I tell him when I’m ready to go and when I’m not ready to go. Use me whenever you feel like you need me.”
Clubhouse culture can be fickle, and winning papers over differences. Losing can surface them.
“Contrary to some reports, I think [my relationship with players has] been great,” Williams said. “I think our communication level is fine. I talk to these guys every single day about how they’re feeling and spent time with them on how things are going. I’m here as support to them.”
“He’s got respect of the clubhouse,” Rizzo said last week in St. Louis, after the Nationals lost another game in which Williams’s bullpen decisions were debated. “He manages people well. He shows leadership qualities. He’s been improving as a tactician with the bullpen. When you have to work around injuries and poor performance at times, it’s difficult. He’s done an admirable job of keeping this team focused, energized and playing hard and having the right attitude through so many injuries and different lineups and different rotations and bullpen scenarios.”
The Lerner family has been publicly mum about Williams, although there is believed to be frustration among ownership over the team’s competitive struggles despite a $164 million payroll. The Lerners have declined requests through a team spokesman to talk during the season.
Williams and Rizzo talk daily, and the manager said his relationship with his boss is “good.” Williams, whose 2016 team option was guaranteed in the spring and has another one available for 2017, said the future hasn’t been discussed. People familiar with the situation have indicated that no decision has been made on Williams’s future at this point.
“There’s time for that,” Williams said. “Now is not that time. Right now, it’s about winning as many games as we can win.”
Following Wednesday’s series finale loss to the Mets, which featured another bullpen collapse, there was no knocking on the news conference room windows and booing by Nationals fans. For the first time, security guards stood between fans and the glass. At the conclusion of the season, Williams will be evaluated again, this time by people who make decisions for the organization, and there will be no barrier between him and the scrutiny.
Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.