First-year skipper Matt Williams has already put his stamp on the team. The Nationals have been more aggressive on the basepaths than in years past, and the club is expected to have more than its fair share of stolen bases.
Williams also wants his pitching staff to hold baserunners better. Last year, Nationals pitchers allowed runners to swipe 95 bases, catching basestealers only 20 times.
MLB.com caught up with Williams recently to talk about his team and how his first year as manager of the Nationals is going.
MLB.com: Opening Day is almost here. Tell me how you feel about the 2014 Nationals.
Williams: Off the top of my head, I look at it and say, we really have a chance to be really competitive every day. We have a good combination of starting pitching, bullpen, power, speed, defensive capabilities, which is good. So it's up to us to put it all together. On the surface, we have a chance if we do things right.
MLB.com: How has the team played during Spring Training?
Williams: It's hard to tell during the spring, because you don't have your full team every day. In spurts, it has been good. In spurts, it hasn't been so good. I think for the most part, our starters have been good. They have thrown their innings. They have met their pitch counts. They are progressing deeper into the game. Our health has been pretty good, which is a good sign. You look around baseball, it's unbelievable. So that's a positive. But overall, we are doing OK.
MLB.com: What do you think will be the key to the season? Last year, the offense did not click until the second half.
Williams: I think the ability to relax and play. You go through years like they had last year and it should teach you something: They should appreciate that game in April. So we are trying to look forward to that, with that in mind. Those games in April are really important, so we tried to do things in Spring Training to get prepared for that. Some of it is probably overkill. We want to be prepared when we step on the field on March 31 and be able to compete with the Mets and everybody else we play from then on.
MLB.com: You have made it known that you want to see your pitchers hold runners better than they have in the past. How much do you want them to improve in that category?
Williams: It's important to us. If you look at us, with regards to our starters, their ability to hold runners allows them to get deeper into the ballgame. Our stats have been out there since the end of last year. If we score three or more, we have a real good chance, which means we have to hold them to three or fewer. And that's a big part of it. We have wonderful starting pitching, a wonderful bullpen, but we just can't give the other team extra bases. We have to make them earn it. So that's part of the process here. It's part of the mantra, if we will, of let's hold them. Let's make them earn their base. If there is a guy on first base, let's make them get two more hits in an inning to score a run. Those types of things are important, because in the long haul or the course of the season, that really adds up.
MLB.com: You have made defense a top priority. How important is it to you?
Williams: It's ultimately important -- to limit mistakes. Fielding percentage is one thing. We look at that, certainly. But to limit our mistakes, make the routine play. Do not give the opposing teams extra outs, because it does nothing but get you in trouble. That's kind of the focus. … It's important for us to play good defense, because it helps our pitching staff. If we can help our pitching staff, we are in pretty good shape.
MLB.com: You have talked positively about your veterans. Are they better than what you thought?
Williams: I saw them from the other side of the field up until this spring. I see great talent. I see the ability to do a lot of things on the baseball field. What I haven't seen until now are their leadership capabilities, and they are exceptional. Just the intricacies in which they have approached the game are impressive to me -- how they lead and how they must lead in their own clubhouse. If they can do that amongst themselves and hold each other accountable, then we are way ahead of the game. At times, I'm going to simply stay out of their way. That's a good thing to have because they have the ability to do it. They have the ability to lead themselves, to step on the field and take control. You get that with guys that have been around a while. I'm fortunate to step into the position where I can allow them to do that.
MLB.com: If seems like only yesterday that you were a player. Has it hit you that you're the manager of the Nationals?
Williams: Yes, it has hit me. I never expected the opportunity to manage a club to come so quickly, because I haven't coached that long. I've been in coaching for four years. There are many guys that have aspirations to do it, and it takes a lot longer to get there. With that, I have to be open-minded in accepting the responsibility and the pressure that goes along with it.
I've said it a million times and it's the truth: Who wouldn't want to be in this position? If you really look at it, you play the game, you are a kid, you are 8 years old and you stand in the backyard and the situation is always bottom of the ninth, two outs, bases loaded. You want to be the guy that's standing in the World Series with that situation in hand. You want to be the guy in control. So who wouldn't want to manage? That's the way I look at it. I enjoy that process. Are there sleepless nights? There have been a bunch of them, and there will be plenty more. With that being said, I love every moment of it because this is where I want to be.
MLB.com: Even though you are calm, cool and collected, I can tell by your offseason remarks, there are days that you are not happy.
Williams: The only thing that frustrates me is not wins and losses, because sometimes, you can't control that -- ball hit to the infield and a bad hop goes over your infield, you lose the game. You can't control that. We understand if we approach it the right way -- given the talent we have and given where we stand currently -- then we have a chance. But first and foremost, we have to approach it the right way. If we don't do that, then that upsets me. Mistakes are going to be made and I understand it and it's going to happen. If you are approaching it correctly, then it's OK to make those mistakes.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also can be found on Twitter @WashingNats.