PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — During the 75-mile ride from Viera before his first game in a Washington Nationals uniform, Manager Matt Williams was far from anxious. Mark Weidemaier, the man in charge of the team’s defense and the only coach Williams brought with him from his previous job with the Arizona Diamondbacks, began to doze off in a nearby seat on one of the team’s chartered buses. Williams grabbed his cellphone, hoping to snap a photo of Weidemaier sleeping so he could post it on the board in the coaches’ office. “We have a little fun,” Williams said, smiling.
Twice, however, Weidemaier opened his eyes in time to spoil Williams’s plan. “I knew it was coming,” Weidemaier said. “He’ll get me eventually.”
A few hours later, Williams stood at the edge of the infield dirt and watched Weidemaier take the team through infield drills before its first Grapefruit League game against the New York Mets, an example of the repetition-heavy spring training he has led so far. Williams then threw batting practice to the first group of starters and hit groundballs with a fungo bat to Danny Espinosa.
At 1:04 p.m., Williams presented his first lineup card as Nationals manager, walking to home plate to meet Mets Manager Terry Collins and the umpires. A few minutes later, he was at one edge of the dugout surrounded by coaches leading the Nationals to a 5-4 win. And at 4:03 p.m., he joined the celebratory line of high-fives in the infield.
“It was fun,” Williams said.
For his first spring training game as manager, Williams brought a mixed contingent of established players and those fighting for a spot or to make an impression. Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche, Ian Desmond and Scott Hairston started and gave way to Steven Souza, Michael Taylor, Jamey Carroll and Jeff Kobernus. Taylor Jordan, competing for the last spot in the rotation, started and tossed two strong, scoreless innings before turning the ball over to prospect A.J. Cole, who spread three hits but no runs over the next two innings.
From his spot in the dugout, Williams watched, evaluated and called for the substitutions. And when he saw Desmond steal a base, Kobernus taking second on a ball in the dirt and Taylor last long enough in a rundown between third and home to allow Souza to move into scoring position, Williams smiled. He has stressed aggressive base running, defense and attention to detail in camp.
“That’s the kind of way we want to go about doing it,” he said. “There’ll be times when the ball is flying out of the ballpark and it’s going to be fun to just sit there and hit. But we’re gonna have to play that way, too. That’s gratifying. Regardless of win or loss, that’s the way we gotta play.”
Williams wasn’t nervous for his first major league spring training game as manager because he is a compulsive planner. He only worried about getting all the players on the trip into the game, and he managed to squeeze 26 players in.
“He’s been serious and pays attention to all the little details,” outfielder Nate McLouth said of Williams. “Not sure if that makes sense — serious and jokes around. But he does both. It’s been a lot of fun.”
“He’s quiet, but he tries to get confidence in us,” catcher Wilson Ramos added. “That’s what we need: to feel confidence in the dugout and in the field. And that’s what we need from the manager.”
During the past two weeks of workouts, Williams even had a dry run of the game-day dugout practices. He and bench coach Randy Knorr sat in the conference room in the bowels of Space Coast Stadium and talked about where each would stand in the dugout during games to watch the infielders and outfielders and how to call signs.
But one detail remained undecided: Where would Williams be in the dugout? Bullpen coach Matt LeCroy asked Williams earlier whether he was a dugout pacer, but Williams wasn’t sure.
On Friday, he was mostly still. He hung over the portion of the railing closest to the helmets and bats and the clubhouse tunnel. He reached for the lineup card in his back pocket often. After a player entered the dugout following a run, he joined the chorus of fist pumps and high-fives. He was relaxed and observant.
“He does a good job of being the same guy every day,” Zimmerman said.
In the top of the ninth, when the Nationals took the lead on a Taylor run-scoring triple, Williams gave signs to third base coach Bobby Henley. If Koyie Hill had reached base in the inning, Williams was planning to pinch-run speedy outfielder Brian Goodwin. The manager enjoyed the strategizing.
“I was pretty calm standing there,” he said. “I got the chance to work with Bobby a little bit on some signs. It was good. Good day all around.”
After the game, Williams met with reporters in the visiting manager’s office in the clubhouse. Only a handful of players remained in the clubhouse, mostly minor leaguers, packing up their belongings. The final bus for Viera left at 4:35 p.m. Just outside, Knorr, still mostly in uniform, walked toward the bus but stopped to offer his assessment of Williams.
“He was good,” Knorr said. “I think maybe butterflies at the beginning, but he was fine during the game. He was fine the whole time. He was excited.”
But would Knorr try to sleep on the bus back home? “I don’t sleep on the bus,” he said.
“Because of Matt.”