How the uber-hyped Bryce Harper responded after being benched for not running out a groundball Saturday had to be a footnote to the larger story facing Washington Nationals manager Matt Williams. The same goes for the equally-hyped Stephen Strasburg, whose mound dominance is more than a footnote if the Nationals are to deliver a power rotation that is postseason worthy.
It is a different baseball world now for Williams than it was during most of his 17-year major league career; there were no Nationals for one thing, and the St. Louis Cardinals were a perennial also-ran of the National League, making the playoffs just one time in 12 years during the peak of Williams’ career from 1988-1999.
Williams was just finishing his playing career when the Cardinals were beginning a remarkable run of success that started in 2000 and continues to this day, making the Cardinals the gold standard in the majors. Williams was part of the Arizona Diamondbacks team that beat the Cardinals in the 2001 division series en route to a World Series title and lost to the Cardinals in the 2002 division series.
The Cardinals began their 15-year revival of success (including this year) in 2000. Since then the Cardinals have advanced to the playoffs 10 times, winning two World Series titles while losing two and advancing to the league championship series another four times.
Williams has to be wondering what he can do now to guide the Nationals to even a modicum of the success that the Cardinals have enjoyed the past 15 years. Without Williams at the helm, the Nationals had the best record in baseball in 2012, only to lose to the Cardinals in the division series in five games. Last year, the Nationals had a winning record but failed to advance to the playoffs. The past two years were the only two winning years the team has had since the inaugural Nationals season of 2005.
Williams has a talented team and the experience as a player and coach to help the Nationals sustain a plateau of success. He watched Harper run hard down the line on a chopper over the middle for an out in Harper’s first at-bat of the series finale against the Cardinals on Sunday, and he watched Strasburg strike out two of three in a 1-2-3 first inning.
The rest of the game contributed to the learning process for Williams and his team. Strasburg pitched well enough to win, yielding just two earned runs in six innings while punching out nine, and Harper finished 1-for-4 with a stolen base.
Harper bounced out in the sixth with two outs and bases loaded, but he undoubtedly learned something from that at-bat as well as when he was on-deck in the bottom of the ninth as Denard Span hit a walk-off sacrifice fly to give the Nationals a 3-2 win over the Cardinals to split the series.