VIERA, Fla. - Anytime a new manager or coach takes the reins of a team, the early stages of his tenure will be carefully analyzed to see how he handles his players and runs the ship.
We’ve discussed how Matt Williams’ first week running the Nationals has been very detail-oriented and planned out. There’s a structure in place for how Williams wants things to go, and on the first day of full-squad workouts, his players got a good feel for the pace and focus with which drills will be run this spring.
“I think I took a left step every odd second of the day,” Denard Span joked. “Just very structured, and he definitely has a plan in place. I respect that. I respect somebody that’s prepared and has a plan.
“Ain’t nothing worse than going into a battle without a plan, not being prepared. I’d rather lose with a plan. At least you can say, hey, we had a plan and it didn’t go right.”
Williams met with his players around 8:30 a.m. and delievered a speech that wasn’t overly intense, but showed that he’s plenty focused on the task at hand and helping this team get where everyone expects it to go.
The message, according to players, was along the lines of: My coaches have bought into the plan that we’ve set up. Are you ready to buy in?
“I wanted them to just trust the process of what we’re doing here,” Williams said. “This time of spring it’s all fundamentals and walk-throughs and all of that stuff early on. But I asked them to just trust it and understand why we’re doing it and that it will benefit us in the long run. But everybody was good, enthusiastic and we got through everything.”
Williams isn’t going to be super in-your-face, it seems, and he won’t be the type of intense that results in him becoming a drill sergeant. But he does want his guys to be focused on the minor things that come along with spring training. It might be easy to just go through the motions when you’re running drills that you’ve gone through since you were in Little League, but Williams won’t be having that in his camp.
After Williams delivered his message, he turned over the floor to Mark Weidemaier, who is the Nats’ new defensive coordination and advance coach. Weidemaier brought up a series of bunt plays on a giant projection screen and walked through them with the players, who all had been given sheets with the plays on them ahead of time.
Span said it kind of felt like Weidemaier was drawing up football plays, with arrows directing players around and telling everyone where to go. And this system went over well with players, who were happy to be able to focus on the drills themselves, not the instructions, once they got out to the field.
“I like it, because you go out to the field and then you don’t waste time,” Danny Espinosa said. “You get out there and you do it right away. You don’t have to explain, ‘You’re going here, you’re going here.’ It’s on the board, this is what it is. They give you a layout and a sheet before the day starts. This is what the plays are, so you can look over them before the meeting even starts. Have an idea what you’re doing. You get out there and things run real smooth.”
Beyond that, there’s a health factor, Williams said.
“Part of the objective is to get it done in the morning while we have time, review it, make sure that we understand it and then once we get out there we can just run them while everybody is loose and all of that,” he said. “The pitchers have thrown. They’re hot, they’re ready to go. And that way you minimize injury, for sure, and you’re able to be crisp about it. That’s the idea behind it. That’s why we do it that way. And I think it’s beneficial because we can get through it quickly and everybody gets their work done.”
Also mentioned by Williams and Weidemaier was the fact that the Nats finished 13th in the National League in fielding percentage last season. Williams brought that up at the Winter Meetings back in December, as well, and clearly is making working on defensive fundamentals a priority this spring.
Hence, the bunt plays and the crisply run infield drills.
“They say that defense wins championships,” Jayson Werth said. “I don’t know if I buy into that 100 percent, but I know it’s very important, and if we were 13th in the league last year, we can do better.”
“In a crisp setting like that, you don’t want to be the guy who messes up,” Ian Desmond said. “You don’t want to be the guy who slows the momentum. And I think that, in return, will result in playing better.”
Every player that I’ve talked to about Williams’ ways of attacking the early days of spring has given him the thumbs up so far. They like the attention to detail, they like the focus, and they like the intensity.
“We want to be known for playing the game the right way, hustling, making the other teams feel uncomfortable when they play us,” Span said. “So that’s what we want to do. We don’t want any teams to like to see us on the schedule.
“We’ve got to do what it takes. We definitely have a legitimate chance to do something special here, but it’s gonna come down to us, what we do collectively as a team. Picking each other up, sacrificing and doing the little things. I think we definitely have the talent in this room, but I think we have to pay attention to the small details and do the small things in order to win a championship.”