- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 1, 2014

During most games, Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams can be found on the second or third step of the dugout, his eyes fixed on the field and a member of his coaching staff at his side.

Williams leaves his perch when he makes a decision. He climbs the steps to share a lineup change with the umpires or challenge a call. He walks to the mound to take the ball and remove a pitcher from the game. He circles the dugout to check on injured players or summon a substitute.

Yet for every time Williams leaves those dugout steps, there are dozens of other times in which he chooses not to act. There are the substitutions he does not make, the pitching changes he ponders and forgets, the conversations he considers but does not have.

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“I trust,” Williams said. “Part of my job is to step aside sometimes and say, ‘Go get ‘em, fellas.’”

In his first season as a major league manager, Williams is on a short list of candidates for the National League Manager of the Year award. He has led the Nationals to a 96-66 record in the regular-season and a National League East title, navigating injuries to key players and minor controversies along the way.

It is easy to point to the moments this season in which WIlliams took action: Benching Bryce Harper for not running out a ground ball, for example. Or piecing together a lineup and rotation despite injuries to Ryan Zimmerman, Doug Fister, Wilson Ramos, Harper and others. Or inserting Steven Souza Jr. into Sunday’s regular-season finale as a defensive replacement, a move that might have saved Jordan Zimmermann’s no-hitter.

It is more difficult, but also more important, to appreciate the moments in which Williams tactfully and purposefully did nothing.

“There’s a million decisions that go into every day that you address or you don’t address, you attack or you leave alone,” Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said. “The nuances of the manager’s job, unless you’re inundated and in it every day, they go unnoticed. … It’s what happens in the background, what nobody sees, that’s really what measures a manager.”

Rookie manager earns respect

Nate Schierholtz grew up a San Francisco Giants fan. So as a kid, he always idolized the Giants’ young third baseman, a four-time Gold Glove award winner named Matt Williams.

Schierholtz loved Williams‘ quiet and humble demeanor on the field. He loved that Williams never showed up his opponents, but simply went about his business every day.

“I always remember one thing stood out in my mind about him: He always hustled and put his head down after home runs,” Schierholtz said. “I always respected that.”

The same could be said of many players in the Nationals’ clubhouse. Williams was a player that many of them grew up admiring. So when he arrived in Viera, Florida, for the first day of spring training, he instantly had a certain amount of respect based on his playing days alone.

“But that only takes you so far,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said.

Williams earned his respect as a manager through both action and inaction. He makes rounds through the clubhouse, cracking jokes and speaking with players individually about their roles on the team. He also defends his players both privately and publicly, at one point lashing out at the media in a pregame press conference when asked if he would consider sending a slumping Harper to the minors.

“The challenges here are interesting, because if you talk about Bryce or you talk about Stephen [Strasburg], their spotlights are a lot brighter than everyone else’s. They know that, I know that, everyone knows that,” Williams said. “So I have to show them support, along with all the other guys as well. … I’m going to defend them like nobody’s business. And if I feel like they’re being treated unfairly, I’m going to let whoever I feel is doing that know that I don’t agree with it. Ultimately, I feel like that’s what a manager should do.”

In other regards, Williams believes the manager should not do anything. Unlike his predecessor, Davey Johnson, Williams does not frequently change his batting order because he believes players need consistency. He does not make reflexive changes during losing streaks. And players say he has only called one traditional team meeting this season, if you could even call it that.

“I feel like there’s some times where there’s managers that feel like they have to speak up and speak their mind and do all that. Well, there’s certain times where you feel like as a player, we’re battling,” utility man Kevin Frandsen said. “It doesn’t necessitate needing to talk to everyone, having a team meeting.”

“There’s some things in this game you just can’t control,” LaRoche added. “You can go out and lose five in a row and play really good baseball, hit the ball hard just right at guys, just have some rough luck. It’s easy as a manager to look at that and say, ‘All right, we’ve lost five games. Something’s got to change.’ When nothing needs to change. I think he sees that.”

Steering the ship

In the two seasons before Williams‘ arrival, the Nationals won a combined 184 games, claiming the NL East title in 2012 and falling just short of a postseason berth in 2013. Before he was hired, Williams was asked by team officials what he would change to get the team back into the playoffs.

“Get out of the way,” he replied. “This team is not broken.”

For many people outside the organization, it’s easy to agree. It’s easy to look at the Nationals’ roster and see a team built to win.

“The people who say, ‘Just hand over the keys,’ they’ve never done it,” Rizzo said. “They have no idea what goes into that statement.”

Over the course of the season, five of the eight position players in Williams‘ Opening Day lineup spent time on the disabled list. Zimmerman missed 99 games with a broken thumb and a strained hamstring. Harper was out for 57 games.  Ramos missed 46. LaRoche missed 14. Fister and Gio Gonzalez were each out for more than a month.

Williams‘ team might have been built to win, but that would-be winner was constantly broken. And Williams was the one who kept it on course, emphasizing each day’s game with a mentality that spilled into the clubhouse. He didn’t change, nor panic.

“But if you ask him, he doesn’t want any credit. He wants all the blame,” LaRoche said. “When things go wrong, he wants you to go blame him, not his players. When things go right, he’s probably not going to take any credit. That’s just his makeup. That’s the way he is. That right there, you see that as a player.”

As he enters his first postseason as a big league manager, Williams is hesitant to give himself any credit for his team’s success, just as LaRoche predicted.

Williams praised his staff, particularly bench coach Randy Knorr and pitching coach Steve McCatty, for “pulling me off the ledge” when he was on the verge of making some decisions. And he praised his players for establishing their own identity and sticking with it. He’s just one small piece of the puzzle.

“For me, what I’ve learned in this is that you’re just kind of steering the ship,” Williams said. “There’s going to be smooth sailing, that’s going to happen. But you’re also going to run into some storms and some waves. The engine’s going to go out. You’re going to have a leak here and there. And so you just kind of steer the thing.”

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