Was a loose, relaxed approach to Spring Training one of the factors behind the Washington Nationals' slow start in 2013?
It's one of the things that, along with the pressure manager Davey Johnson placed on the Nats' collective shoulders with his "World Series or Bust!" declaration, has been pointed to often when people have tried to explain what went wrong for the 2012 NL East Division Champs in the first half last season.
"I think the way we handled spring training was not as good as it could be," Nationals Principal Owner Mark Lerner told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.'s Holden Kushner last month at NatsFest. "I think it wasn’t as disciplined as it could be. I think we’ll go into this year, Matt [Williams] is very meticulous and like the Marines he has every day planned out, and I think you need that."
And Matt Williams does really have every day planned out.
"Day 1 through 41, it's all there," the 48-year-old, first-time skipper told reporters last month. "I don't know if it's going to be tougher," Williams added when asked how it would differ from Spring Training under his predecessor. "I think it's just regimented. That's a good way to put it. I get all bunched up if I don't have a plan. So, often times that plan is completely wrong, but at least I have a plan. So, we'll change and it will be fluid and all of those things, but at least we know going in we've got it kind of mapped out on what we want to accomplish."
"He's prepared, that's good," Nationals' outfielder Jayson Werth told reporters. "I think he was a prepared player and he was a prepared coach from the guys that I've talked to from when he was coaching, and I think he’ll be a prepared manager."
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Werth, however, wasn't necessarily buying into the idea that anything that happened in Spring Training last year caused the Nats' issues early in 2013.
"There was a lot talk about how we prepared in Spring Training last year," Werth said. "And how some people thought we didn't do enough or whatever was said, but it wasn't anything different than what we did the year before and we won 98 games. Spring Training is Spring Training. I don't put too much weight on Spring Training. Good or bad. No matter what happens. I just think you need to stay healthy coming out of Spring Training. And even then, it's not necessarily true."
Werth pointed to the start of the season rather than Spring Training in discussing where he thought the Nationals' problems started last season. "I think just the mentality going into the season might not have been in the right spot," he explained. "Coming through what we went through the year before and the age of some of the guys and the inexperience, I think this year we're kind of further along and down the road from all that so hopefully we can start good and put all that stuff behind us and have the season I think we're capable of having."
A strong start is something veteran reliever Craig Stammen believes will be extremely important.
"I think the first month is going to be huge for us this season," Stammen said. "If we get off to a good start, we're going to be like, 'Alright, we've got it figured out.' If we struggle, it's going to be a fight like it was last year."
A slow start wouldn't necessarily doom the Nationals, however.
"It's a long season, so even if we have a bad first month, it's not the end of the [world]," Stammen said. "But, I'm saying, if we get off to a good start, it's going to propel us to things that are even better than what we did in 2012." A bad start and those thoughts could creep in the reliever explained. "'Is this going to be like last year?' 'Are we just a team that's going to underperform?'"
So will the tone Matt Williams sets in Spring Training have any effect on what happens in the 2014 campaign? Is it all about staying healthy and players getting in their reps? Making sure Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Adam LaRoche and any other players working their way back from injury issues are 100% on Opening Day? What do we know about Spring Training with Matt Williams? It will be regimented, but loose and flexible. He's a fan of daily inspirational quotes according to the Washington Post's profile.
Other than that it will be a learning process for everyone involved, manager, players, fans and reporters alike.
Heading into his first Spring Training as a manager, Williams said there were two simple goals going forward.
"One, that we're prepared to play every day," he said. "Two, that we're playing meaningful games in September and we want to make it to the postseason like everybody else. So, we're going to have to do things correctly to get there, and that will be our focus starting day one of Spring Training and we'll keep that focus through the end of the season and hopefully we're in a position to go further."
Day one of Spring Training is just two days away...
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