- The Washington Times - Monday, October 5, 2015

So often the answer was to prepare for tomorrow. Matt Williams sectioned a baseball season into smooth slices, the start time of the next day’s game always available for redemption. He used odd phrases on occasion, warning that letting things from the outside “rent space in your brain” was detrimental to staying on the incremental path. Always ready for tomorrow, then prepare again.

He is out of baseball tomorrows with the Washington Nationals. Williams was fired on Monday, a year after being named National League Manager of the Year. The search for the Nationals‘ seventh manager since baseball returned to Washington 10 years ago is active.

“These are the first decisions we thought we needed to make as we meticulously evaluate why the 2015 season didn’t go the way that we hoped,” Rizzo said Monday afternoon. “This entire season was a disappointment, not only to myself, but to the ownership and the fan base in Washington, D.C.

Williams wasn’t the only member of the coaching staff to go. The team also dismissed its coaching staff, parting ways with third base coach Bobby Henley, bench coach Randy Knorr, bullpen coach Matt LeCroy, pitching coach Steve McCatty, hitting coach Rick Schu, first base coach Tony Tarasco, and defensive coordinator Mark Weidemaier.

The end unraveled with equal parts disappointment, eye roll and odd-ball circumstance. During the 36 hours concluding the home portion of the 2015 schedule, the Nationals were eliminated, fought each other in the dugout, and handed out suspensions.

No day was more odd than Sept. 27, which was supposed to be the final home game of the season, when presumptive NL MVP Bryce Harper fought with closer Jonathan Papelbon in the dugout. Williams was unaware of the extent of the altercation; his greatest strength — singular focus, in this case, on the first meaningless game of the season — caused him to lose sight of a larger happening.

SEE ALSO: Jonathan Papelbon suspended for role in altercation with Bryce Harper

Word of the fight did not reach Williams at the other end of the dugout, despite Schu being among those that broke it up. Rizzo was surprised by that.

“There’s plenty of mistakes to go around in the issue,” Rizzo said the next day.

Rizzo later went on to justify his four-game suspension of Papelbon and tap-on-the-wrist punishment of Harper. Rizzo was pressed, looking more and more uncomfortable, for answers about Williams and what went wrong this season. Deflective sentences came, before a telling one at the end when asked specifically what Williams could have done better.

“Probably, possibly, manage the health of the players better,” Rizzo said.
Nothing derailed the World Series favorites more than health problems, and the general manager was saying the manager was part of that problem. Williams compounded the issues with odd bullpen choices and curious bunting decisions. Adaptation was replaced by robotics. Things were done by an iron-clad book.

Which, in many ways, was why Williams was hired in the first place. Maintaining a reactionary sports tradition, the new manager is often the opposite of the one he is replacing. Williams, a hand-picked, first-time manager with the nickname “The Big Marine,” took over for bubbly, experienced and older Davey Johnson.

As a rookie manager in 2014, Williams won 96 games and guided the Nationals into the playoffs for the second time since 1981, when they were the Montreal Expos. Johnson had won 98 games, was named Manager of the Year and reached the playoffs two years earlier. Neither team made it out of the NL Division Series. In 2013, the Nationals went 86-76 and missed the playoffs, and Johnson departed. He and the Nationals could not agree on a new contract, but the departure was portrayed as mutual.

“I think that there was a lot more trials and tribulations this year,” Rizzo said of Williams‘ second season. “If you look at the roster we had in the winter here and going into spring training, it was a roster that many, many people felt was a championship-caliber roster.”

Even in his second spring training, Williams, who appeared looser, would not concede he felt that way.

“I don’t think you ever relax,” he said in his small concrete office in Viera, Florida.

The injuries began then. Anthony Rendon’s knee, Drew Storen’s non-pitching hand, Stephen Strasburg’s ankle. These were in addition to the known problems Denard Span and Jayson Werth would have returning from surgeries. Their paths back were expected to be laborious. Not so for Rendon’s.

“Purely precautionary,” Williams said on March 11. “Worked through his day yesterday, but was a little bit sore. On the inside of his knee. Took a pretty hard dive out there on the infield and the infields are hard. So, there is no issue other than bruised, and he’ll be good to go in a day or so.”

Rendon did not reach a big league field until June 4. By June 24, he was shut down again. A small thing turned into a big thing, a bruise into a breaking point, following the path of the season, which turned out to be Williams‘ second and final in Washington. Williams was 179-145 in his two seasons.

He received one notable public declaration of support during the season. Bryce Harper hugged Williams in the dugout following his second home run of the game on Sept. 16. Afterward, Harper said he “loved” Williams as a manager. The endorsement was emphatic and strikingly timed. The Nationals had crumbled, and criticism of Williams had grown. Harper spoke out to defend someone he has compared, in approach, to his father.

Otherwise, the public backing of Williams was limited. When asked before the season ended about Williams‘ future, Rizzo would only mention that Williams was under contract for 2016. Though, often the public blessing of the general manager for an embattled manager is of little worth. Change can come even if that false pat on the back is delivered. It arrived on Monday.

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