VIERA, Fla. - Throughout the first two weeks of camp, Nationals manager Matt Williams primarily had his players focus on the fundamentals.
The Nats have spent time working on hitting the cut-off man on a throw from the outfield. They’ve practiced getting a good secondary lead that can allow the runner to move up on a wild pitch. They’ve had drills where pitchers come to a set position and hold the ball for three full seconds, trying to make a baserunner antsy and throw off his timing.
Sure, Williams liked that the Nats won yesterday’s spring debut 5-4 over the Mets. Wins are fun. But the Nats skipper was much more pleased with a number of the little things that his players did right during that win than he was with the victory itself.
“It’s gratifying to put into practice what we’ve talked about,” Williams said. “(Jeff Kobernus) getting a really good read on the ball in the dirt, one. The way we wanna play the game. Ian (Desmond) stealing a base. So, that’s the kind of way we want to go about doing it. There’ll be times when the ball is flying out of the ballpark and it’s going to be fun to just sit there and hit. But we’re gonna have to play that way, too.
“That’s gratifying. Regardless of win or loss, that’s the way we gotta play.”
These are the things that managers look for in the early stages of spring, while hitters are still tracking pitches and trying to get their timing down and pitchers are trying to find the strike zone and improve their secondary pitches.
As has already been mentioned quite a bit - and will continue to be mentioned - the results don’t mean that much at this point. Sure, it’s great for Zach Walters that he went 2-for-2 with two doubles yesterday, and it’s nice that Taylor Jordan allowed just one hit in two scoreless innings. But stats are overrated in spring training (remember Henry Rodriguez’s 0.75 ERA in 12 spring innings in 2012?), especially in the early stages.
Managers all have their own things that they want to see their players focus on in these early spring games, beyond hitting for a high batting average or posting a low ERA. And with Williams, whose attention to detail has been written about in this space at length, his players know what he’s looking for.
That’s why when in the top of the ninth, after Michael Taylor ended up staying in a rundown long enough between third base and home to allow Steven Souza to make it all the way from the batter’s box into scoring position, a large group of players and coaches was waiting for Taylor at the top step of the Nats dugout. They dished out fist pounds and high fives as if Taylor had just hit a grand slam in a regular season game.
“(We’ve) definitely emphasized baserunning a lot,” Taylor said. “I talked to (third base coach Bobby) Henley before the pitch, and he said if I was going to be out by a lot, just to try and stretch it out and give (Souza) a chance to get around. We were able to do that and had another chance to score a run.”
Williams was asked about Taylor after the game, and specifically the triple that gave the Nats the lead for good in the top of the ninth. But Williams barely addressed the triple. He focused more on the play immediately after the game-winning hit, when Taylor put into practice something Williams and his coaches have been trying to harp on this spring.
“We wanna train guys if we can in that regard and put pressure on the defense to make a play, a good throw to home plate,” Williams said. “He did everything perfectly. It didn’t work out that he scored. But he did everything perfectly on that play. It’s good.”
The Nats won’t win every game 7-0. They want to be able to win the 2-1 games, as well. And Williams believes all this focus on the little things will help his team get those tight wins when the results actually matter.
Here’s today’s quote of the day, written atop the morning schedule sheet: “Defend your house. We control tempo.”