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Matt Williams fired after 2 seasons as Nats manager

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Matt Williams fired after 2 seasons as Nats manager

UPDATED: 11:57 a.m.

Matt Williams, whose steady, never-wavering demeanor helped the injury-plagued Nationals stick together through difficult times to win a division title in his first season as a big-league manager, was fired Monday because he wasn't able to do the same in his second season in Washington.

The Nationals' front office, headlined by general manager Mike Rizzo and managing principal owner Ted Lerner, made the decision at the end of a surprising and disappointing season that saw Williams' ballclub fritter away the division title to the Mets during a second-half collapse capped by in-fighting, accusations and poor performances. Williams was informed of his dismissal Monday morning, the team announced in a press release.

The Nationals also announced Williams' entire coaching staff had been relieved of their duties. Bench coach Randy Knorr, pitching coach Steve McCatty, hitting coach Rick Schu, first base coach Tony Tarasco, third base coach Bob Henley, defensive coordinator Mark Weidemaier and bullpen coach Matt LeCroy were all let go.

Williams was hardly the lone reason for the Nationals' 83-79 record during a season in which they were consensus World Series favorites, but the second-year skipper squandered plenty of opportunities over the last few months to prove to his superiors he deserved to return.

The Nationals had already picked up Williams' 2016 contract option in February, rewarding him for the job he did in guiding the team to a 96-66 record in his rookie season, a performance that earned him NL Manager of the Year honors. But as the club's struggles compounded this season, the organization's commitment to its manager waned.

Though the final decision wasn't made until after Sunday's season finale in New York, club officials' opinion of Williams progressively deteriorated over the last couple of months, hitting its low point during a tumultuous late-September stretch that sealed his fate.

Williams' in-game strategies had been coming under fire for some time, dating back to the Nationals' 4-game postseason loss to the Giants in the 2014 NLDS and continuing through a frustrating 2015 that frequently saw whichever member of a beleaguered bullpen Williams summoned cough away yet another late lead.

But Williams' final undoing might well have been his handling of matters off the field during the latter stages of this season, with a variety of key players questioning his decisions and complaining about the 49-year-old's communication skills. Last week's dugout tussle between Jonathan Papelbon and Bryce Harper exposed the disconnect between Williams (who didn't see how Papelbon instigated the fight and choked his teammate) and his coaches and players (none of whom immediately told the manager what happened, leading to Papelbon's return to the mound the following inning).

The firing of Williams is a major blow to the previously dent-free armor worn by Rizzo since he became GM in 2009. With an opportunity to hire just about anyone he wanted after Davey Johnson departed following the 2013 season, Rizzo hand-picked Williams off the Diamondbacks' coaching staff. Williams had virtually no previous managerial experience — aside from one stint in the Arizona Fall League and an interim stint at Class AA — but Rizzo had long since pegged him as a future big-league skipper based on the time they spent together in Arizona more than a decade ago.

Rizzo's job status was never seriously in doubt, but he has received plenty of blame himself not only for hiring Williams but for assembling a roster that severely underachieved this season. He'll face increased pressure in 2016, with club ownership expecting a significant turnaround.

Rizzo's immediate task: Hiring a new manager, one who will become the Nationals' sixth different skipper in only 12 seasons in town. Not one of the previous five lasted more than 2 1/2 years (though Frank Robinson did hold the position for a total of five years spread between Montreal and Washington).

There's no clear frontrunner for the position, with Rizzo holding options to go in a host of different directions.

If the Nationals want to replace the inexperienced Williams with a seasoned, big-league manager, Bud Black and Ron Gardenhire are available.

If they want to try another up-and-comer seeking his first managerial opportunity, they can look to a list of candidates that includes current big-league coaches or minor-league managers Wally Backman, Dave Martinez and DeMarlo Hale. Or if they want to go for the biggest possible name out there, albeit one with zero managerial or coaching experience, they could once again consider Cal Ripken Jr. as they did two years ago.

Williams finished with a 179-145 record, a .552 winning percentage that ranks 34th among all major-league managers with at least two seasons at the helm. Nobody higher than him on that list managed fewer than three big-league seasons, and among those with lower winning percentages are Hall of Famers Sparky Anderson, Leo Durocher, Joe Torre, Tony La Russa, Whitey Herzog and Tommy Lasorda.

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The Nationals have had their eyes on Kelvin Herrera for years

The Nationals have had their eyes on Kelvin Herrera for years

On Monday, in the middle of their game with the Yankees, Mike Rizzo did a very Mike Rizzo thing and added another strong arm to the Nationals' bullpen well before the trade deadline.

In a trade with the Kansas City Royals, the Nats dealt prospects Kelvin Gutierrez, Blake Perkins and Yohanse Morel for relief pitcher Kelvin Herrera.

Herrera, who's in his eighth season, has walked only two batters in the last 27 games and is set to become a free agent at the end of the season. 

"We just thought that it was a good idea to strike early," Rizzo said Wednesday on 106.7 The Fan's Sports Junkies, simulcasted on NBC Sports Washington.

"We thought the closer to the deadline we get, the more competition we'll have for Kelvin [Herrera]. We were able to strike a deal with Dayton Moore quickly and [we] couldn't be happier about it."

But Mike Rizzo didn't just come across Herrera by chance, he's had his sights on him for years.

"He was one of the guys that we kind of kicked the tires on [last year] and obviously the price for Kelvin at that time with a year and a half of control was a lot different than it was with four and a half months of control."

"We did have our eyes on him for years. He's been a great reliever for years. He's one of the guys we talked about when we talked about improving our bullpen." 

Herrera has spent all of his eight seasons in the big leagues with the Royals, even winning a World Series. Trades can bring both joy and angst, but Rizzo knows Herrera is excited to get back to playing meaningful baseball.

"This guy is such a competitor; World Series tested and playoff tested. He's happy to be playing meaningful games. He talked about what it takes to win a World Series, and you know, our guys were all ears. I think he's really thankful for getting the opportunity to get after it again and get another ring."

"At the same time, you know, it's hard for those old relationship to die and to move on, but he was very excited about being with us. I spoke to him after we made the trade and he [was] a little shocked, but really fired up about it. And when he got to the clubhouse, [he] met some of his old teammates - Timmy Collins and Ryan Madson -  and was welcome with open arms by not only the bullpen guys but everyone on the team." 

Herrera will join Sean Doolittle, Brandon Kintzler, and Ryan Madson to make about as deep of a bullpen as any in baseball right now.

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Trea Turner goes 4 for 4 to help Nationals beat Orioles

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Trea Turner goes 4 for 4 to help Nationals beat Orioles

WASHINGTON -- Presented with identical opportunities to ring up a big inning, the Washington Nationals took full advantage and Baltimore Orioles squandered the chance.

That goes a long way toward explaining why the Nationals are a contender and the Orioles own the worst record in the big leagues.

Trea Turner went 4 for 4 with a homer , Anthony Rendon drove in three runs and Washington extended its recent domination of the Orioles with a 9-7 victory Tuesday night.

The game was essentially decided in the fifth inning, which began with Baltimore leading 4-1.

In the top half, the Orioles loaded the bases with no outs and scored only one run -- when Manny Machado hit into a 4-6-3 double play.

Washington loaded the bases with no outs in the bottom half and batted around, scoring four runs on four hits and a pair of walks. Adam Eaton contributed a two-run single, Rendon hit a sacrifice fly and Bryce Harper chased starter David Hess with an RBI double.

"They did a lot better job cashing in their bases loaded, nobody out situation than we did," Orioles manager Buck Showalter conceded.

For the game, Baltimore was 0 for 5 with runners in scoring position. The Nationals were 5 for 10.

"This team is starting to become relentless," manager Dave Martinez said. "They kept pounding and pounding and pounding, had a couple of big innings there and scored some runs."

The Nationals trailed 6-5 before getting six hits in a four-run seventh. Rendon delivered a two-run double off Tanner Scott (0-1) that made it 7-6, and Turner capped his four-hit night with a double.

Both teams noted that more than a couple of Washington's hits were bloopers and seeing-eye grounders, but the Nationals certainly weren't about to apologize.

"I feel like all year we've been hitting balls right at people," Turner said, "so it's nice to get a bunch of those in one game and come out with a win."

Washington has won six straight over its neighboring interleague rival, including four games this season by a combined 20-8.

Pitching in his second big league game, Nationals starter Jefry Rodriguez gave up five runs, four hits and four walks in five innings.

Justin Miller (5-0) pitched two innings of relief, newcomer Kelvin Herrera worked a perfect eighth and Sean Doolittle gave up a solo home run to Joey Rickard while earning his 19th save.

Jace Peterson and Trey Mancini each hit two-run homers for the Orioles, who have lost 16 of 19.

This one can be blamed on an all-too-telling fifth inning.

"It's just one of those things where if they got hits they seemed to have found holes," Showalter said. "They hit some balls hard, too."

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