- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2014


Sports Illustrated must think the 2014 Washington Nationals are very talented — very talented.

They picked them to win the World Series — not just win the National League East, but to win the whole thing, to be the team that Bud Selig presents his last Commissioner’s Trophy to.

They must really believe these Nationals are so good, not even Matt Williams can screw them up. They must believe that these Nationals can win in spite of their rookie manager, not because of him.

Nobody knows if Matt Williams will make the Nationals better or worse. That’s the point — he is an unproven commodity.

We know he can run a spring training camp — boy do we know that. He cut out the strippers and wild parties Davey Johnson hosted the previous springs that led the Nationals down the disappointing path of an 86-76 record last year, missing the playoffs (the same spring training practices, I might point out, that led to the NL East title and 98 victories the year before).

We know Williams can make the trains run on time. And we know he can come up with a daily quote to keep his players focused.

What we don’t know is what his quote of the day will be when his Nationals have lost six straight and the bullpen is banged up and imploding. We don’t know what his quote of the day will be when Rafael Soriano blows consecutive saves, and fan favorite Drew Storen is sitting in the bullpen spitting sunflower seeds.

We don’t know if Williams can manage a team to a World Series championship.

I know the popular storyline today in baseball is the great, new wave of rookie managers and their success, such as Mike Matheny of the St. Louis Cardinals, with two playoff appearances in two years and the NL pennant last season. But he didn’t win the World Series, like Sports Illustrated is predicting Williams will do in in Washington.

If he does, he will only be the fifth first-year manager in the history of baseball to win it all.

Of the four who have done it, the first was Washington Senators player-manager Bucky Harris in 1924. Eddie Dyer did it with the Cardinals in 1946, and Ralph Houk with the New York Yankees in 1961. The last was Bob Brenly of the 2001 Diamondbacks — a team Williams was on. It’s a World Series ring he shares with Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo, who was director of scouting for the Diamondbacks.

In other words, it’s not easy. Houk did it in an expansion year when Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle combined for 115 home runs. Brenly did it when he had Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling go a combined 43-12.

Is Bryce Harper Roger Maris? If so, who’s his Mickey Mantle? Ryan Zimmerman? Can Jordan Zimmermann and Stephen Strasburg be Johnson and Schilling?

A lot has to go right for a first-year manager to take a team all the way to the World Series, because when things do go wrong, they will be facing that challenge for the first time, no matter what how impressive their baseball resume may be.

I might point out that Matheny, with his success of late, was a former catcher. So was Brenly, Heck, Ralph Houk was a former catcher.

Catchers know more about pitching than any other position players, for obvious reasons. And the biggest challenge facing Williams will be how he handles his pitchers — particularly his bullpen. As Davey was fond of saying — rightfully so — it is “my bench against the other guy’s bullpen, and his bullpen against my bench.”

Williams may be great at it. Or else all he may have to be is not terrible at it, if his team is good enough to overcome any managerial missteps.

It may be. Even the Nationals’ critics have to admit they are among the top three rosters in the NL, along with the Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers.

If Harper has a Mike Trout-like season (boy, I bet that hurt), or if Strasburg has the dominant season we have been waiting for since that magical June 2010 night when he debuted with 14 strikeouts in seven innings against Pittsburgh, the Nationals may been good enough to win it all with a first-year manager whose last baseball quote of the season may be, “Thank you, Commissioner Selig.”

• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com.

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