Comparing Williams to Johnson in the early stages of spring

VIERA, Fla. - A lot of the talk early on this spring has been about how Matt Williams is detail-oriented and intense, and is running his first camp as Nationals manager at a quick pace and with a high level of focus on the fundamentals.

His players, almost universally, seem to like that, and appreciate how Williams has handled things so far and the way he’s attacking these early workouts.

A few of those players, however, wanted to make it clear that just because they like Williams’ spring regimen to this point, that doesn’t mean they feel that former manager Davey Johnson handled things incorrectly in his two springs at the reins. Johnson’s style was more relaxed in spring, for sure, but he still made his players get their work in and do what it took to get ready for the season. Williams just goes about it a good bit differently.

“I think there’s a bad picture being painted, like Davey just threw the balls out and we all just kind of went through the motions,” shortstop Ian Desmond said after yesterday’s workout. “We did basically the same thing. Obviously, there’s been some major changes as far as riding over (to the practice fields) in the carts, doing our conditioning before we do our defensive work. ... But I’m no more tired today than I was last year on this first day or anything like that.

“But I definitely think the plan in place is gonna benefit us. The fact that everything is crisp and well-executed is gonna benefit us. It puts the emphasis on details and that’s something that we needed to pay a little more attention to.”

Reliever Ryan Mattheus agreed with Desmond’s thinking, but put it a bit differently.

“It’s not that we were unprepared last year,” Mattheus said. “That wasn’t it at all. It’s that we’ll be over-prepared this year.”

Interesting take.

It’s probably important to note that the Nationals’ spring training approach was the same in 2013 that it was in 2012, when the team went on to win 98 games, take the National League East title and reach the playoffs for the first time since baseball returned to D.C.

Johnson’s laid-back style and his trust that his players would know what they individually needed to do in order to get themselves ready for the regular season seemed to work just fine that year. For whatever reason, it just didn’t come together in 2013.

One difference this time around, however, is that there isn’t as much outside hype around the Nats as there was this time last year. Inside of the clubhouse, the Nats believe, to a man, that they have what it takes to win it all, so there’s not much change there. But there are no “World Series or bust” mottos being tossed around, and the cloud filled with outside expectations isn’t as large.

“Last year, the pressure was on winning and being the best team and all the outside stuff,” Desmond said. “This year, the focus is on doing things the right way, and not being the guy to deter our growth. We were moreso worried about the outside, this year we’re more worried about the inside. Keeping what we have going, a well-oiled machine, things like that. It’s more inward focused as opposed to the external focus.”

That comes, the players say, from Williams, who has set the tone even in the very early stages of spring.

“I think he’s a good guy,” second baseman Danny Espinosa said. “I think he’s gonna be good about letting us go about our stuff, but if he needs to kick you in the (butt), he’s gonna kick you in the (butt) to get you right where you need to be.”

“The manager, he’s the head, he’s the leader of this ballclub,” center fielder Denard Span said. “He sets the tone as being the manager, and when he comes in saying he himself is ready to sacrifice and wants to do certain things to make sure we’re ready, it just trickles down from there.”

So the Nats will focus on the fundamentals a lot this spring, because that’s an area Williams wants to attack. They’ll focus on improving their defensive play. They’ll focus on getting bunts down properly and moving runners over. They know that they can win a game 7-0, but they want to be able to win their share of tight 2-1 games, as well.

“In this game, there’s a lot you can’t control,” Mattheus said. “But with the things that you can control, we’re going to be prepared, and we’re going to be ready.”

Here’s today’s quote of the day, written atop the morning schedule sheet: “It takes a great deal of stamina to pursue success.”

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