When Rafael Soriano blew his seventh save of the season and fifth since the All-Star Break Matt Williams was faced with his biggest test as Washington Nationals manager. He had to remove a veteran player from a role. Soriano was no longer the right player to close for the Nationals. Matt Williams had given him a long leash but that was at the end. The situation had reached its nexus and a decision had to be made. When asked directly about making a change after the game Matt Williams mentioned that Soriano was a professional and understood what had to happen. The public image of the change is Soriano needed some rest and after a bullpen session Monday is in the process of working his way back to his closers role, but with only three weeks left in the regular season it is doubtful that Soriano can prove he is ready to regain that role.
Contrast that press conference and the way Matt Williams talked about Rafael Soriano to an earlier press conference when after a close loss to St. Louis it was revealed that Bryce Harper was benched due to lack of hustle. Matt Williams threw Harper under the bus and it is doubtful he realized the repercussions of this. Thomas Boswell got three columns out of it, an unnamed veteran source leaked to the media that Harper was disliked in the Nats clubhouse, columns were written about how it was Matt Williams or Bryce Harper who would eventually have to go, and talk radio callers blathered on about Harper being immature and needing to be taught a lesson. Matt Williams had an epiphany moment later in the season when after not outright dismissing the absurd question of Harper being sent to the minors on a morning radio spot he was asked the same question in the afternoon and this time put the media in their place and proved that he had Bryce Harper’s back.
Matt Williams had a rough start as the Nats manager. In April and May the team played sloppy defense and had issues on the bases. The sloppiness and lack of preparation of 2013 appeared to be carrying over. The Nationals as of May 28 were 25-27 and being called one of the season’s most disappointing teams. With concurrent injuries, sloppy defense, and bad base running it was 2013 all over again and it was easy to point to Matt Williams as part of the problem. The Nationals were a team ready to win, and needing to take advantage of the talent they had. Here they were again under playing expectations, and looking lost on the diamond at times. Defense, better base running, and preparation were the differences Matt Williams was going to make, and they weren’t being made.
It’s a good thing the baseball season isn’t only 52 games long. Since May 29 the Washington Nationals have gone 56-34, they have become one of the best base running teams in the majors, and rarely make an error on defense. It has been quite the turnaround for the Nationals season and Matt Williams deserves credit for some of it. Injuries were the biggest factor for the Nationals lack of success through May, but Matt Williams never panicked and his calm and steady demeanor turned out to be the guiding hand the Nationals needed. Matt Williams learned as the season went along and went from being a pretty poor manager to living up to every change he said he would make with the Nationals.
It is hard to quantify exactly what a manager does and if they can make any difference at all. If the players aren’t performing it is hard for a team to win no matter what buttons the manager pushes. This is why the manager of the year award is really the award for the team that improved the most from the previous season or the team that most overplayed expectations. For much of the season the Milwaukee Brewers sat in first place and it looked like a lock that Ron Roenicke. The Brewers have since fallen back to six games back and third in the NL Central. A manager that oversaw that type of collapse can’t be manager of the year. The Dodgers and Cardinals were expected to be good, Clint Hurdle won it last season, and Bruce Bochy despite being the best manager in the NL is always unlikely to win it since the Giants winning the Wild Card is an under performance.
That leaves Matt Williams who took over the 86-76 Washington Nationals who were the disappointment of 2013 with their window of opportunity suddenly starting to slam shut. Matt Williams took a team that looked unprepared, was sloppy on defense and the bases, and struggled with injuries. Matt Williams faced many of the same struggles in 2014 as Davey Johnson did in 2013, but the Nationals ended up performing better and if they can end up with the 92 wins they’re on pace for that is an improvement of six game. With no established managers like Buck Showalter or Mike Scioscia in the NL Matt Williams is up against a lot of managers without a track record of success and the fact that he is the freshest of all the fresh faces could make him appealing to voters. Combine that with the fact that the 2014 Nationals overcame the struggles that doomed the 2013 Nationals and it is starting to look like Matt Williams is the front runner to be the 2014 Manager of the Year.