NEW YORK — Matt Williams tinkered with countless different lineup combinations throughout spring training, trying to find a formula he felt would work best once the regular season began.
And then the first real lineup card the Nationals’ new manager ever filled out featured a 1-through-9 combo that was never actually used this spring.
So, when did Williams finally settle on this lineup: Denard Span, Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos, Bryce Harper, Ian Desmond, Adam LaRoche, Anthony Rendon, Stephen Strasburg?
“It’s been a couple weeks,” he said. “We look at it, and during spring training, you want to make sure you’re giving everybody their proper work and number of at-bats they need and all that stuff. But now that we’re here, this for us seems like a good lineup to head out there for Opening Day with.”
The biggest surprise: Ramos hitting cleanup, something the catcher has done six times in his career but almost always as a result of injuries to others.
Williams decided on Ramos based on his production this spring and late last season after he returned from hamstring injuries (he clubbed 14 homers and drove in 53 runs over his final 64 games). The makeup of the rest of the lineup also factored in, especially the decision to bat Zimmerman second.
“Wilson’s one of our best middle-of-the-lineup guys,” Williams said. “The fact we moved Zim up a little bit in the lineup, it puts [Ramos] in a good spot there. Hopefully today he’s got a lot of opportunities in that regard.”
Zimmerman has spent the bulk of his career hitting third, but a late-season switch to the 2-spot spurred the veteran third baseman to post monster September numbers (11 homers, .913 OPS).
“Zim has the ability to do a lot of things on a baseball field,” Williams said. “And to put him in front of those three guys seems to be a case where he will have those opportunities. His success last year dictates a lot of that. … He understands that the No. 2 spot is the No. 2 spot the first inning, and that’s it. And then it just comes around to your next time up.”
Some might question Williams’ decision to hit Harper fifth, denying him at-bats he would get batting higher over the course of a full season. But the rookie manager, who enjoyed much of his success as a player batting fifth, sees that spot as a premium position, one that offers tons of opportunities to drive in runs while also allowing Harper to use his legs.
“Just the ability to open his game if we want to open his game up a little bit,” Williams said. “It’s interesting to see what Bryce can do. He has the ability to beat the other team in a lot of different ways. He hit there a lot this spring. He’s had a lot of opportunities to drive runs in, and we want to continue to do that. … We want him in situations where he can win games for us. And that’s a good spot for him.”
So, will this hold up as the Nationals’ lineup every day moving forward? Though Williams’ preference would be to keep a set 1-through-8 intact, he knows the unlikelihood of that.
“We would like to have everybody in a spot where they’re comfortable and leave them there,” he said. “The reality is, that’s not going to happen. For the most part, that’s what we want to do. But we’ll see how it goes. … It’s going to change day-to-day depending on who we’re facing and who’s playing. But we’d like to leave them in one spot if we possibly could.”