Pressure to win will be on for Matt Williams in 2015


One of the most important moves general manager Mike Rizzo and the Nationals made last winter was bringing in Matt Williams to replace Davey Johnson as manager.

The Nationals were coming off a disappointing 2013 season in which they failed to reach the playoffs after pacing the National League with 98 wins the year before. While Johnson did an admirable job leading the Nationals to their first playoff appearance in 2012, many felt that he didn’t have the same energy in 2013 and that a change was necessary.

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When Williams came in last season, he came in knowing full well that he had been hired for one reason: to lead one of the most talented young teams in baseball to the World Series. Most first-year managers join young, rebuilding clubs that are a few years away from contention. For Williams, he was handed the finished product and told “take it to the next level.”

While that’s a lot of pressure to put on a rookie manager, Williams took the job and, for the most part, did it extremely well.

Williams not only led the Nationals to their second NL East title in three years, but he did it despite the fact that the team was plagued by injuries all season long. Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and Wilson Ramos, arguably the team’s three best hitters, all missed significant time on the disabled list. Nevertheless, Williams managed to work around the injuries and lead his team to the playoffs in his first season as manager.

Of course, it helped that the Nationals had one of the deepest rosters in the league and the best pitching staff in baseball. Unlike Johnson in 2013, Williams managed a team that performed how it was supposed to. But a team that suffers as many injuries as the Nationals did in 2014 can easily fall out of contention, and Williams did not allow that to happen to the Nationals.

While 2014 was a great season for Williams, it wasn’t always an easy ride. Williams was criticized heavily for several lineup decisions all season long, especially for batting Harper sixth. Williams also struggled in the playoffs, where he made several controversial decisions that may have hurt the Nationals in their NLDS shellacking at the hands of the Giants.

No, Williams wasn’t perfect in 2014. But with the NLDS disaster farther in the past and cooler heads prevailing, most would agree that Williams did a great job in 2014 and that most of his mistakes were forgivable for a first-year manager. Next season, however, things won’t be as easy.

Williams will enter the 2015 season with monumental expectations not only on the Nationals, but also on him. The Nationals will once again be one of the most talented teams in the game and many have already tabbed them as “World Series favorites.” Obviously, Nationals fans know better than anyone that that phrase means absolutely nothing and that the team has to perform like a champion during the season and in October if it wants to achieve its goals.

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But for Williams and the Nationals, anything short of a trip to the Fall Classic will be unacceptable. He and his players are a year older and gained valuable postseason experience in 2014, meaning that there won’t be any excuses for failure in 2015. Not only that, but many believe that 2015 will be the Nationals’ last chance to bring the World Series trophy back to the nation’s capital, since many of the team’s most important players are scheduled to become free agents next winter.

The Nationals hired Williams with the expectation that he would be their Tony La Russa, a manager who will grow with his team and lead them to the playoffs each season for many years to come. With a successful 2014 season under his belt, Williams is off to a great start. But the 49-year-old manager still has to prove that he has what it takes to take the Nationals to the next level – and he’ll have to prove it in 2015.