Pitchers and catchers report to Viera, Florida on February 13th. New Washington Nationals' skipper Matt Williams can't wait to get started. "I'm itching. I think everybody is," Williams told reporters at NatsFest, which was held in the Gaylord Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, MD. "I'm itching to go. I think everybody is ready. Seeing the guys that are coming off their injuries, everyone looks good. All the reports are good and we're excited to get there."
Williams got to meet many of his players for the first time last weekend, but one player who has a bit of history with the manager from the Arizona Fall League in 2012, Williams' one professional managing gig, said he's excited about what the 48-year-old veteran of 17 MLB seasons as a player will bring to the bench.
"I like that he brings a little fire," Nats' second baseman Anthony Rendon said. "I guess in the Fall League, there [were] a couple of times where we were slacking, you know. It's the end of the year, guys are not lazy, but you've played a lot of baseball. But you've got that moment where he'll get into you and he'll lay into you a little bit and he'll get that fire, he'll get you going." In Rendon's AFL stint under Williams' guidance, he put up a .338/.436/.494 line with 10 doubles in 22 games and 94 plate appearances for a Salt River Rafters team that lost in the AFL championship.
"That was a great thing for him because that's where he actually got his time to manage and that was his opportunity to show people he could bring out the best in his players, and I believe he did that," Rendon said.
Williams impressed the Nationals' "elder statesman" too when he met with Jayson Werth shortly after officially being named the new manager this winter. Werth came away from the get-together impressed. "I've got a lot of confidence in Matt," the Nats' right fielder said. "I think with all the playing experience and the type of guy he is, his overall baseball IQ, I think he's going to do a good job."
Ross Detwiler, who will be battling for the fifth spot in the rotation this Spring, said he was excited to get to work with Williams. "He's going to be intense," the 27-year-old left-hander said. "You're going to have to answer for what you do. I think it's going to be a great addition to the ballclub." Asked why everyone who meets Williams says he's intense, Detwiler said his impression was based mainly on what he saw from the new manager during Williams' playing days.
"I really don't think it's the conversations," Detwiler explained. "I think you just saw the way he played. You remember him playing. And that's kind of the player he was, so you just figure that's how he is. So, I don't expect any different. He was kind of a hard-nosed guy, just did his work, worked hard and he was a great player, so it's going to be awesome to have him out there, he's going to relate to us a lot more. He's just got done playing."
"He went about his business," Scott Hairston said of the former D-Backs' infielder whose career was wrapping up just as Hairston was coming up in Arizona. "Serious and intense and I think that it's going translate very well to the team. He's not that far removed from being a player."
Nationals' starter Stephen Strasburg met Williams for the first time at NatsFest, but he'd apparently asked around as he tries to get to know the third full-time manager he's known in the nation's capital. "Everything that I've heard from some of the guys that I live around, they say he's intense," Strasburg told reporters. "I kind of get that feeling. But I think it's going to be a good thing for this club, so I'm excited to play for him."
Tyler Moore is excited too. "I don't know him very well," the backup first baseman said. "I've heard great things. I'm ready to meet him and talk with him and just excited to see how he manages us in the Spring."
"We had a short conversation down in Orlando at the Winter Meetings," Nationals' center fielder Denard Span said, "and he told me that he wanted me to be more aggressive on the bases. He said he wanted me to run more and I like that."
The Nationals are ready, and when they arrive at Space Coast Stadium, Williams will be ready to run his first Spring Training. He joked earlier this winter about having the first 25 days planned out at that point. He has the entire Spring mapped out now.
"Day 1 through 41, it's all there," Williams joked. Asked if the process will be any different or tougher than it was under previous managers, the Nats' new skipper said, "I don't know if it's going to be tougher. 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."
As Williams has explained before, though he doesn't have much managerial experience, he's learned from some great mentors and brings a little something from each with him into his first job. But the advice he's received is to just be himself. "I have to be myself, I think," Williams said. "I can't tailor myself according to somebody. But I want to try to take a little bit from everybody. A little bit from Dusty [Baker]. A little bit from Buck [Showalter]. I want to be prepared like him. I want to be able to have a relationship with the players like Dusty has. A little bit like [Kirk Gibson] with his intensity. A little bit from Bob Melvin, in that, again I didn't play for him, but I viewed him being part of the Diamondbacks' organization. His baseball acumen and how he thinks about things."
Williams also said he's spoken to many of his friends in the game to get advice. "Everybody that I've talked to has said, 'Be you. Just be you.' You can't try to be something else because it will never work. So, bring your fire if you have fire. Genuinely care about the guys and their success, because ultimately that's what you're there for, to help to nurture them to be as good as they can be." So how good can the 2014 Nationals be? Williams wasn't about to get tricked into a "World Series or Bust"-ish declaration, but he was confident.
"I think they're ready," Williams said. "I think they're ready for a championship. I think they've had some experience certainly in the playoffs in 2012. Last year I think everybody had high expectations and were a little disappointed. That's understandable. With those high expectations comes commitment from us too. So, we're here to step up and meet that challenge and be committed to winning and we'll see what we can do."
As for his own expectations, Williams said it was simple.
"One, that we're prepared to play every day. 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."
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