The wreckage of the Nationals playoff hopes is scattered on the Nats Park infield and it’s hard to know where to begin picking up the pieces. Let’s start with Matt Williams, because we may not have Matt Williams to talk about very much longer. It’s getting harder and harder to imagine Williams returning to this team next year. The 2015 Nationals’ flameout was so swift and so complete it almost demands a scapegoat.
Last night, Williams was hampered by the same thing that’s publicly haunted him all season: bullpen management. It was insane to put Drew Storen back on the mound last night with the game on the line considering what happened Tuesday night. Ordinarily, it’s smart management to believe in your players, but last night was anything but ordinary. It was a must win. And Tuesday night was anything but an ordinary poor performance by Storen. It was a complete mental breakdown. Storen didn’t just miss his pitches on Tuesday, he missed them by feet. After seeing what happened in Game 2 of this series, it was completely illogical for a manager to expect Storen to succeed last night, particularly against the exact same hitter who wrecked his confidence the night before.
In a sense, the Storen decision was vintage Matty: choosing baseball convention over the most logical choice considering all the factors. In April, it’s probably a good idea to give your closer (or primary setup man) the chance to bounce back before a failure mentally metastasizes. But in a win or go home scenario, it’s rolling the dice and expecting two sixes.
But the decision to fire Williams won’t be made on bullpen management. As noted many times, managing a bullpen is only a small part of a manager’s job, and something that can be fixed or mitigated over time. Instead, Rizzo and team ownership will make the decision based on whether Williams is the right guy to lead this team. In that regard, there’s more than enough smoke to suspect Matty has lost the locker room. I’m not in the clubhouse, but those with access are reporting Matty’s dour demeanor and leadership style is not helpful in a pennant race. In baseball, it’s hard to measure the innate qualities in a clubhouse leader. Williams has definitely shown he can’t tactically push the right buttons. From the outside, however, it looks like he can’t inspire the team either.
Will Williams make it through the season? I suspect he will. We don’t have far to go. A new string of losing against teams like the Marlins and Phillies might cause Rizzo to put Matty out of his misery, but Nats leadership is likely to wait and reasses everything once the season is over.
Speaking of reassessing things, Williams’ job status is only one item on a long list. This season’s particular failure had a thousand fathers, and Williams is only one. The seeds of the Nats collapse this year were sown all over the field Wednesday night. It’s fitting names like Cespedes, Kelly Johnson, and Tyler Clippard played a role in the Mets sweep of the Nats because these guys weren’t even on the Mets roster a month and a half ago. Matt Williams was routinely outmanaged this season, but Mike Rizzo was thoroughly out general managed by Sandy Alderson. The Mets GM smelled blood in the water and made a run for the division by completely overhauling his roster. At the trade deadline, Rizzo did next to nothing. Cespedes could have manned the corner outfield with Harper in center, but Rizzo arrogantly expected hurt and recovering Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, and Denard Span to carry this offense to the playoffs. In retrospect it was a huge and unwise gamble. While the narrative will certainly focus on the bullpen right now, it’s easy to forget the Nats division deficit was created in August, when this team couldn’t score enough runs. Rizzo deliberately maintained a thin roster, which was thoroughly exposed after the trade deadline.
There will be changes to the Nats this offseason–probably big ones. Matty might be gone, but the purge will only begin there.