Over time, Matt Williams said, the feeling in the pit of your stomach dissolves. The disappointment of a season ending too soon slowly turns into something else.
In time, he said, the embers become the fuel.
“The end result of it all is that it empowers and motivates,” Williams said in a telephone interview last week, “and you can’t wait for spring training to go again.”
On Tuesday night, Williams could become the second Washington Nationals manager in three seasons to receive the National League Manager of the Year award. In his first year as a big-league manager, he led the Nationals through a slew of injuries to a division title and a league-best 96-66 record. What came next wasn’t as pleasant for Williams and his team, but votes for the award were submitted before the playoffs began.
And now, a little more than a month after the Nationals were eliminated by the eventual World Series champion San Francisco Giants in the NL Division Series, Williams’ focus has already shifted forward — to Viera, Florida, to February, to the next opportunity.
“It’s painful for a while when you don’t win, you don’t reach the ultimate goal. But after a while it turns to motivation,” Williams said. “That’s kind of the choice that you have. You can sulk if you want to, or you can just get back to work and do your best to have another opportunity to go further next time.”
SEE ALSO: Washington Nationals 2015 spring training schedule released
Spring training is three months away, but Williams is already working 10-hour days, tweaking and planning and perfecting the workout schedule, doing everything he can to put the Nationals back in the situation they were in roughly one month ago.
“We have to take what we did last year, improve on that if we can, look at different areas where we can be more efficient, make better use of our time,” Williams said. “We have to look at the dynamics of our club and how we can get better this year. All that process has already started.”
When asked to reflect on his first season in Washington, Williams first goes back to the beginning of spring training, the unity with which the players and coaching staff approached the year. He cites the work ethic of his coaching staff (“I don’t know if there’s a harder-working group of men in the game,” he says) and the resolve of his players.
The Nationals won their second division title in three years even as five of their eight Opening Day starters spent time on the disabled list. Altogether, they missed 624 games due to an injury, not counting season-ending injuries to Erik Davis and Ross Ohlendorf.
“Everybody did just a fantastic job of persevering and getting through some times where we lost some major components to our team,” Williams said. “Guys stepped up, they played well, our pitching staff was awesome. So it was a fun season. It was challenging at times but, overall, from that perspective, I don’t know what more we could hope for.”
Williams said he is honored to be one of three finalists for the Manager of the Year award, joining San Francisco’s Bruce Bochy and Pittsburgh’s Clint Hurdle as the top vote-getters.
But should he win the award, Williams said the credit will go to general manager Mike Rizzo and his player development staff. When one player went down with an injury, the manager said, another rose from the minor leagues, ready and capable of contributing.
“There’s an award for manager of the year, but there are many, many other factors to winning baseball games and winning our division and getting into the postseason,” he said. “If the results turn out that it is me, then I would certainly look to our organization — namely our coaching staff, our player development, Mike and his staff — to give the credit to them. Because that’s who really makes it happen.”
Regardless of Tuesday night’s outcome, Williams will wake up Wednesday and continue to prepare for 2015 the same way. He plans to spend Thanksgiving and Christmas at his home in Arizona, and otherwise spend more time with his family when possible. But the offseason is no time for rest.
“There’s a lot of work to be done. Lots of work,” Williams said. “But hey, that’s why we’re here.”
• Tom Schad can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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