- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2014

As the National League Division Series went on between the Washington Nationals and San Francisco Giants, Nationals manager Matt Williams clung tighter and tighter to his “plan” — and his team got tighter with him until you needed a John Deere tractor to pull a pin out of their collective behinds.

The Nationals seemed to take on the personality of their manager right right before our eyes during the series, playing tight, making one mistake after another on the field. Throwing to the wrong base, failing to field bunts, swinging hopelessly at the plate, all culminating in their 3-2 Game 4 elimination loss to the Giants — who played loose and laid-back, like their manager, Bruce Bochy.

If a team ever needed a Matt Williams Babe Ruth imitation that we’ve heard so much about, it was the Nationals before Game 4.

Jayson Werth — the darling of the Nationals press corps who, when they needed him, refused to talk to the media following the season-ending loss — was more chesty and talkative when they clinched the National League East division, when he almost talked this Nationals meltdown into existence.

“I think more than anything, he kind of stayed out of our way and let us play,” Werth said on MASN in the locker room celebration. “He pushed all the right buttons and pulled all the right strings. He did a good job — first-year manager. He was given a good team, though, and he didn’t screw it up.”

He didn’t stay out of the way when they needed him to in this series — pulling Jordan Zimmermann with two outs in the ninth inning of a remarkable 1-0 shutout in Game 2 at Nationals Park. Instead, he pulled Zimmermann’s string and pushed Drew Storen’s button, and quickly Washington found itself in a 1-1 game until Brandon Belt belted the game-winning home run in the 18th inning.

SEE ALSO: Key offseason questions for Nationals heading into 2015

He pulled all the wrong strings and pushed all the wrong buttons in Game 4. In the bottom of the seventh, Williams let left-handed reliever Matt Thornton pitch to Buster Posey — he of the 210 hits, 53 doubles, 32 home runs and 61 walks in 631 career at-bats against lefties — instead of bringing in his ace right-hander Tyler Clippard in that situation.

Then, when he does bring in a right-hander to face Hunter Pence after Posey singles to center, it is not Clippard — or Stephen Strasburg, who Williams declared would be available out of the bullpen. He brings in Aaron Barrett, who was getting guys out in places like Allentown and Pawtucket a little more than a month ago.

We know what happened next. Barrett walks Pence and, with the switch-hitting Pablo Sandoval at the plate, throws a wild pitch that scores Joe Panik from third with the go-ahead run to make it a 3-2 game. They decide to intentionally walk Sandoval, but Barrett throws an intentional ball over the head of catcher Wilson Ramos. Posey tries to score, but the ball bounces back quickly off the wall to Ramos and Posey is thrown out.

The damage, though, was done. Washington would go on to lose the game and the series.

Williams made it worse in his postgame press conference, when he explained his moves with a similar comment that he made about pulling Zimmermann in the ninth inning of Game 2 and talked about the “plan.”

“Those are our seventh-inning guys,” he said. “That’s how we set this up we were going to go with Barrett. That’s what he’s done for us all year long.”

Well, that’s not entirely true. For a while, Barrett was doing it for Triple-A Syracuse in the International League. But the stubbornness to recognize that this wasn’t “all year long” — this was a moment when the season was at stake.

The best Nationals fans can hope for is that this was a learning experience for the rookie manager moving forward.

The club has some difficult offseason decisions to make. First baseman Adam LaRoche may have played his last game as a National, as Ryan Zimmerman is expected to be the team’s first baseman moving forward. They have a $9 million option to bring back center fielder Denard Span, who, despite his postseason struggles, drove the Nationals’ offense during the regular season. Michael Taylor may be the future for Washington in center field, but they likely haven’t seen enough of him yet to commit to him for the 2015 season.

Both Zimmermann and shortstop Ian Desmond are entering the final year of their contracts, and neither has shown a particular willingness to make a long-term deal with the Nationals management. They are going to need a second baseman. And ownership — MASN money or not, whenever that comes — may be reluctant to raise the team payroll much beyond the $135 million it spent this year.

The Nationals should still find themselves back in the postseason next year. When they do, I would suggest a Marx Brothers film festival for Matt Williams before the games start. A few Three Stooges episodes (Curly ones, of course) perhaps.

And plans? Burn them.

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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