Nationals Manager Matt Williams took time out of his busy spring schedule on Thursday to speak with Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski on his Sirius XM Radio show “Basketball and Beyond with Coach K.” Krzyzewski, who has been a lifelong Cubs fan, talked about his respect for Williams during his playing days (you can read more of the interview on the DC Sports Blog post by Scott Allen here).
Perhaps the most interesting part of the show, though, came when Williams was asked about his right fielder, 22 year old Bryce Harper:
"“The reason he was in the big leagues so early is because he has great desire to be the best player. He always has been. From the time he was 16, he was always the best player on his team. So the desire is there. He’s a wonderful student of the game. You ask him questions about decades ago and he’ll give you the answer, so he understands the history of it, and he really wants to be good. He’s one of the first guys at the clubhouse, he works extremely hard.” – Matt Williams"
Those comments might come as a surprise to anyone who followed the Nationals closely last year. After all, one of the season’s biggest storylines came when Williams made the borderline dictatorial move to yank Harper and sit him on the bench after Harper failed to run out a comebacker to the mound. Williams also eviscerated Harper in his post game comments, calling him out for “lack of hustle” and failing to live up to the “agreement” that they made on how to play the game.
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The situation only escalated when Bryce Harper, upon returning to the lineup after his thumb injury, made a big production of critiquing Williams’ lineup. It was an ugly situation, and though everything seemed alright afterward, fans couldn’t help but wonder whether or not another blowup was waiting around the corner.
So what should we make of Matt Williams’ comments to Coach K? Is he simply paying lip service to one of his young players to keep him from dissenting? Or has Williams really bought into Bryce Harper, realizing that he needs the budding superstar if he hopes to lead this team to a World Series title?
Nationals fans certainly hope it’s the latter. After all, the sort of coach vs. player clash that Williams and Harper were involved in last season doesn’t just affect those two. Other players can quickly get caught in the crossfire (see: Denard Span), and locker room chemistry is almost as important to sports success as the talent level.
So far, all signs point to the turbulence between the two as being a thing of the past. Williams’ comments on Coach K’s show certainly mesh well with his comments to the Reno Gazette-Journal in January that Harper is “on his way to a Hall of Fame career,” as well as his statements that Harper’s benching was the “low point of the season.” During the spring games so far, he’s also done what he didn’t do last season and moved Harper up to the first part of the lineup. That could all change once the real games start, but for now, it looks like Williams has had a change of heart with Harper.
All of this is incredibly encouraging for Nationals fans. If the rough waters of Matt Williams’ first season as a Major League manager are behind him, who knows what the ceiling on this team could be? Even with the distractions they had, the Nats managed to win 96 games. With this sort of camaraderie, they could be poised to win over 100 this year, including a few in October.
The important thing is that Williams appears to be all-in on the Bryce Harper bandwagon, and that’s a huge improvement over 2014.
What a difference a year makes.