WASHINGTON — Matt Williams was in his 18th game as a major league manager, still learning on the job, when he went with his gut.
Williams, a 1983 Carso High graduate, saw Bryce Harper hit a comebacker in the sixth inning, jog out of the batter’s box and veer off toward the home dugout, several strides before first base. Williams yanked Harper from the Washington Nationals’ lineup. That decision in April was one of many that made clear Williams would do things his way, something he was taught by a couple of his managers, Dusty Baker and Bob Brenly.
“Dusty told me to be me. You can’t ... try to be somebody that you’re not. When Bryce didn’t run to first, it made me mad,” Williams said. “You’ve got to be who you are, warts and all.”
Williams, whose Nationals host Game 1 of an NL Division Series on Friday, and Brad Ausmus, whose Tigers open their ALDS at Baltimore on Thursday, are attempting to accomplish something only four men have in baseball’s long history: win a World Series as a first-time manager.
Brenly was the most recent, with the 2001 Diamondbacks, whose third baseman happened to be Williams. The others: Bucky Harris, 1924 Senators; Eddie Dyer, 1946 Cardinals; Ralph Houk, 1961 Yankees. Only 11 other rookie skippers reached a World Series, according to STATS.
Both Williams and Ausmus are recently removed from lengthy playing careers (Williams, 48, retired in 2003 after 17 years; Ausmus, 45, stopped in 2010 after 18 years). Both replaced long-time managers (Davey Johnson; Jim Leyland) and kept the predecessor’s bench coach and pitching coach. Both took over talented teams (the 2012 Nationals won 98 games; the Tigers’ 2014 AL Central title is their fourth straight).
And both get credit in their clubhouses for keeping an even keel, connecting with players and, above all, being themselves. “It’s: How do you get the most out of these individuals and humans to win?” Ausmus said. “I think that’s the most important part, and sometimes in this sabermetric age, that’s lost.”
The Tigers went 9-20 from mid-May to mid-June. Starter Anibal Sanchez got injured in August. They slid to second place when the Royals went on a tear. Ausmus never wavered.
“Whether we were winning six in a row or losing — whatever it was, he was the same guy,” Detroit’s Don Kelly said. “I don’t know about inwardly, but at least to everybody else, he was the same guy.”
Williams dealt with Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos and Doug Fister each spending more than a month on the disabled list. Stephen Strasburg lobbied to stay in games longer. Bullpen management didn’t come naturally.
There were three potentially disruptive moments involving Harper: what Williams called “lack of hustle” in April; Harper publicly voicing lineup opinions in June; a radio-interview flap in August over whether a slumping Harper should go to the minors.
Williams weathered everything, wound up with an NL East title and could be NL Manager of the Year.
“We’ve accomplished one goal, and we’re looking for another and another and another, hopefully,” he said, heaping praise on his staff, including bench coach Randy Knorr, pitching coach Steve McCatty and hitting coach Rick Schu, all holdovers. “Getting to know the players was important. I think I’ve done a better job of that. Understanding personalities — that takes time.”
Williams himself earned a certain reputation as a player. A “roughneck,” outfielder Jayson Werth has called him.
“Sometimes things go bad, and you can see him over in the corner of the dugout, steaming at the ears. But he bites his tongue and kind of lets it roll over,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “It’s good for players to know that he’s making an effort to hold back. It’s, ‘This is not ideal, but I’m not going to yell at you for it, because I remember what it’s like.’”
Brenly recalled a 1993 episode when Williams didn’t hold back. Brenly was on Baker’s Giants staff, Williams was the third baseman, and Barry Bonds had just arrived.
“Barry was a big personality; very loud at times, very abrasive at times. ... One day he said something, um, uncomplimentary, let’s say, about one of Matty’s teammates,” Brenly said. “Matty got up off his chair and confronted Barry — not in a physical way, not that he wanted to fight him or anything — and said, ‘Hey, we’re all in this together. You may be the new guy on this team and you may be the superstar of the team, but we’re a team.’”