- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 15, 2014

VIERA, FLA. — Nationals manager Matt Williams did not get much sleep the night before taking the field with his new team for the first time on Saturday morning.

By 5 a.m., his nervous energy with nowhere else to go, Williams arrived at the clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium. Already sitting at a table in the coaches’ office? Bobby Henley, the team’s new third base coach, in full uniform. He’s been with the organization since 2003 and spent the past four years as the minor league field coordinator, but this was a big day for him, too. Williams wasn’t the only one anxious to get started.

Williams has 17 years a big leaguer behind him and four more as a coach with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Spring training is nothing new to him. But this time is different. It’s his show now. So there was an early-morning workout to burn off that extra energy, meetings with Nats staff and coaches and multiple workouts to run at the organization’s minor league complex. Only then did Williams have time to reflect on his first day. And he was quickly ready to move on.

“I think my biggest thing right now is, I’m really looking forward to tomorrow,” Williams said.

Groups of Nats pitchers rotated through bullpen sessions with Williams watching in the background, just beginning the process of getting to know his players: What kind of stuff do they have? In what roles would he use them? He admitted that his brain was running “a million miles an hour” and that his coaching staff might have to rein him in.

“And they help me out with that,” Williams said. “In different ways, of course, but mostly telling me, ‘Go in your office and relax. Leave us alone, let us handle it.’ And so it’s been good so far, in the three or four days that we’ve been together.”

But does Williams actually listen? He doesn’t appear capable yet of kicking back in his office chair with a good book.

“Of course not,” Williams said, laughing. “No.”

After meticulously planning this first camp down to the minute shorty after being hired by Washington in late October, Williams went over the schedule with his staff again Saturday morning for “the 5,000th time.”

It was the first full workout with pitchers and catchers. Position players are slowly trickling into Viera, but don’t have to report until Tuesday. Williams is doing his best to back off and delegate to his coaches. But he also told them that every time he mentions the word “schedule” he’ll throw a dollar into a pot, the equivalent of a curse jar. He’s already a few bucks down. But that’s just part of who he is.

“I was telling the coaching staff that I had a bad day today, because I didn’t get to pick up a fungo and I didn’t get to hit any batting practice,” Williams said. “It’s completely odd for me. Usually I’m out there and my hands have blisters and all that stuff. But it’s part of my adjustment process, too.”

It all worked out in the end. The Nats have few distractions early in camp. There are no players with visa issues, no one visibly unhappy. Even infielder Danny Espinosa, one player who has publicly expressed displeasure with how he was handled during a miserable 2013, is in camp early and ready to fight for a spot on the roster. And most positions are already accounted for with competition limited outside of the bullpen, the fifth starter’s job and that utility infielder role. After one day, at least, there were no complaints.

“I thought it was extremely well-run out there,” pitcher Stephen Strasburg said. “Attention to detail, it wasn’t, like, overkill, but as far as the instruction, they broke everything down. They talked about doing bunt plays and having all of us [pitchers] play positions, just so we know every guy is doing. I thought that’s genius.”

Williams fretted over the weather, but a line of approaching showers broke up just before it crossed into Viera. The morning was still chilly for the Florida coast, even for mid-February, with overcast skies and temperatures in the low 60s. But just before players in the first group broke for lunch, the sun popped out and warmed the fields.

Williams also instituted a new, mandatory transportation system. Golf carts and vans will ferry players from the main locker room to the minor league complex, normally a 10-minute walk away. For Williams, it’s all part of making the camp a more efficient experience for his players.

After the morning workout, golf carts were lined up like buses at a wedding waiting for players to hop aboard. Most of them were ready to start early. Reliever Tyler Clippard was the last to arrive at the workout – still very much on time – and received a mock standing ovation for his effort.

Henley even shook off an ominous start when the air horn he sounds to tell players to switch stations malfunctioned. So did a second one. By the end of the day he had six extras in his golf cart. Not all things go as planned. Maybe that’s the first lesson of 2014.

“Sometimes that ball comes up on you a little bit, and you kick it, but you want that next ball hit to you,” Williams cracked. “I’m going to keep that in mind with myself as well. When there’s a hiccup, you just keep going.”