With players like longtime franchise cornerstone Ryan Zimmerman, veteran outfielder Jayson Werth, emerging leader Ian Desmond, and highly touted young stars Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg all in the fold, it has become difficult to determine whose team the Washington Nationals really are in recent years.
Each player has his own case for why he could be considered the face of the franchise; however, no one stands out as the clear-cut favorite like Derek Jeter of the Yankees or David Wright of the Mets.
But on Saturday, a leader rose above the rest.
In his postgame press conference after the Nationals' 4-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, manager Matt Williams told reporters that the reason he pulled Harper mid-game was due to a "lack of hustle." This was in reference to Harper jogging toward the dugout after lackadaisically running halfway down the line on a groundout back to the pitcher in the bottom of the sixth inning.
In the press conference, Williams said, "[Harper] and I made an agreement, this team made an agreement that when we play the game we hustle at all times. We play the game with intensity and the willingness to win ... We made an agreement and [he has] to live up to it. Today he didn't." You can listen to the full postgame press conference here.
Williams went on to point out publicly that Harper's spot in the lineup had an opportunity to drive in the potential game-tying run in the ninth inning, but because of his antics, Harper was on the bench.
Many Nationals fans took to the Internet following the loss to express their discontent with Williams' decision, disagreeing with his prioritizing disciplining Harper over winning a ballgame. But while Williams probably didn't make any new friends in the clubhouse on Saturday afternoon, he took a significant step in becoming a legitimate leader.
By removing Harper from the game, Williams made a statement.
Not only did he say he won't be tolerating any of Harper's antics, but he also demonstrated to each of the 25 players in his clubhouse that he's not afraid to do what he feels is right, regardless of which players are involved and what the stakes are.
His actions displayed a high level of confidence, and because his emotions about the whole thing seemed very genuine, it should help him in establishing credibility with the rest of his players going forward.
As for any potential damage done to Williams' relationship with Harper, that will be something to monitor over the coming days. But as for Harper's immediate reaction, he told reporters in his own postgame interview, "I respect what [Williams] did. It's part of the game."
Whether he actually took greater issue with being pulled or not, the comments certainly demonstrated Harper has matured since last season's "play me or trade me" remarks he made to then-Nationals manager Davey Johnson, per CSN Washington's Mark Zuckerman.
Williams said Harper will "absolutely" be in the lineup against the Cardinals on Sunday, and it appears that if he hustles to his skipper's standards, this should become water under the bridge fairly quickly.
But regardless, if Williams is going to be calling the shots in Washington for the long haul, it's imperative that he is capable of demonstrating that he won't be taken advantage of by any player. Just 18 games into his managerial career, he has already proven that shouldn't be an issue.
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