VERO BEACH, FLORIDA – What a difference a day makes.
Or in the case of the Washington Nationals, two years make.
In September of the 2012 season, the Nats brain trust — in a heavily scrutinized and much criticized move — shut down pitching wunderkind Stephen Strasburg as he approached a predetermined 170 innings-pitched limit.
This meant the guy most responsible for helping the Nationals notch their first National League East title wouldn’t be there when it counted most — the postseason.
Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo and then-skipper Davey Johnson, the former Yomiuri Giants infielder, and other Nat brass decided it wasn’t worth risking the young phenom’s bright future by allowing him to advance into uncharted, i.e. unpitched, territory.
Washington would then lose its opening playoff series with St. Louis 3-2.
Many Nats fans were irate that team management would blow an opportunity that might not present itself again.
Had Strasburg — 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA that season — been available, he would probably have pitched two of those five contests. Nationals followers felt, D.C. would have almost certainly advanced.
Fast forward to the 2014 season. Washington has again clinched the NL East title.
And once more the Nationals are blessed with a hard-throwing young hurler — this time it’s Tanner Roark (14-10, 2.85 ERA) who recently reached a career-high 173 innings pitched.
Can you say Strasburg redux?
Well, save your breath.
“We are in the business of winning ballgames,” stated rookie Nat skipper Matt Williams, “and we’re going to continue to give him the ball and have him pitch for us because he’s been really, really good.”
Yep, under Williams things are changing in the pitcher pampering department in Washington — and in other areas of on-field modus operandi as well.
All with the blessing of the Nationals’ front office.
At first, many felt that the managing style of the old school Williams — a no-nonsense kind of guy throughout his decorated playing career, mostly notably with San Francisco — would clash with the rich and sometimes aloof young ballplayers dotting the Nats roster.
However, fears that Williams would be your basic drill sergeant in spikes proved unfounded.
As a skipper, Matt has proven to be more of a benevolent dictator, wielding an iron fist in a velvet glove.
“I’m intense — I took that away from my time with Gibby (Kirk Gibson, hard-nosed manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks for whom Matt served as third base coach).” Williams admitted to MAS.
“The authority figure is important.
“But I think you also need to get to know your players,” offered Matt. “You have to be able to sit down with them and talk to them.
“I want them to feel comfortable coming to me with an issue,” he explained. “That way you can put them in the best position to succeed.”
Earlier this season, Williams had to lower the boom on Bryce Harper when the supremely talented but temperamental young outfielder casually jogged to first base on a routine infield grounder.
The two talked. Message received.
To his credit, Harper responded magnificently, apologizing to his skipper, teammates and D.C. fans, vowing never to repeat his moping actions.
“I’ve learned from every manager I’ve played for,” revealed Williams, “Dusty Baker, Bob Brenly, Roger Craig, Mike Hargrove . . . ”
“I try to incorporate the good things about them — preparation, attention to detail, etc. — into my particular style of running a ball club.”
Williams has certainly earned on-field credibility with his players.
In a 17-year career as a big league third sacker, Matt clouted 359 home runs, fifth on the all-time list for homers by a third baseman (a traditional power hitter’s position), and drove in 1,218 runs.
He won four Golden Gloves and a like number of Silver Slugger awards.
Of late, Matt’s Nats have developed a flair for the dramatic.
A recent 10-game win streak — a Montreal Expos/ Washington Nationals franchise record — enabled the Nats to pull away from struggling second- place Atlanta.
Five of those wins involved rallies and came in walk-off fashion.
“It makes it hard on the staff (Williams and his coaches),” Matt said with a chuckle. “But I’ll take Ws any way we can get ’em.”
Surprisingly, it has been the National’s plate work rather than their vaunted pitching that is most responsible for their success this go ’round.
“I think our strength is our quick-strike offense,” Williams told MAS. “We have power throughout the lineup.”
Pacing a batting order filled with tough outs top to bottom are first baseman Adam LaRoche who has clouted a team-high 25 homers and driven in 88 runs, Ian Desmond (23 HRs and a club-best 89 RBIs — amazing numbers for a slick-fielding shortstop) and Anthony Rendon, third baseman, with a Matt Williams-like 20 bombs and 81 ribbies to go with a .286 batting average.
“But we can manufacture runs too, if we have to,” Williams was quick to add.
The up-and-down mound performances this season of Nat aces Strasburg (13-11) and Gio Gonzalez (8-10) have made Roark’s pitching contributions all the more important.
And his further presence critical.
After finishing out of the playoffs a year ago, the Nationals have learned that a postseason return is not a given.
Thus, when Roark crossed the 170-inning threshold he stayed in the game.
Said Williams: “Geez, just because he’s thrown 75 pitches through seven innings and we’re in a tight game, there’s no reason to take him out, because he’s pitched well to get there.”
So, Nats management has seemingly exchanged their “patience is a virtue” philosophy for one that clearly screams “the future is now!”
Combined with Williams deftly yanking and loosening the reins on-field and off, such an approach could yield long-suffering Washingtonians their first World Series title since 1924.
No longer is Washington first in war, first in peace and last in the American League as they were throughout much of the 1900s.
What a difference a century also makes.
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