Ian Desmond confronts another defensive challenge

Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond (20) pauses by the heater during a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Nationals Park Thursday, April 17, 2014, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

In the fourth inning Thursday night, Ian Desmond bent at the waist and placed his hands on his knees, staring across the diamond, out of answers. He had just fired a throw 10 feet short of first base, and the ball deflected off Adam LaRoche’s glove. Desmond had committed his second error of the night, sparking a Cardinals’ rally for the second time in a horrific loss.

Desmond, a Gold Glove finalist the past two years, leads the majors with seven errors in 17 games. Typically a stabilizing factor in the middle of the diamond, Desmond has been the catalyst of the Nationals’ defense, which has committed an MLB-worst 20 errors. He accepted responsibility and admitted he set the tone when he booted the first grounder of the night.

“Last year, I was in the same exact position,” Desmond said. “I don’t know how or why I get here, but, look, I believe in myself. I believe I can be the best defensive shortstop in the game. Right now, I’m not playing like that one bit. I’d be the first to tell you that.

“But I owe it to Taylor Jordan – come out here, first ball of the game, boot it. He should be over there talking about how good he pitched and beating the Cardinals on national television, not what happened. That’s a shame. But you know what, the errors in the past have made me who I am today. These are going to make me a better man, too. Just got to keep fighting through it.”

Desmond has bounced back from vicious defensive slumps before. He reduced his error total from 34 as a rookie to 23 in 2011 and 15 in 2012. Last year, Desmond led the majors after he made his seventh error in the Nationals’ 18th game. After that season-starting spate, Desmond went 59 games before he committed his next error, and he finished the season with only 20 total in 158 games.

“If I ever want to be the captain of this team – and I do – I have to be better than that,” Desmond said. “I’ve been in some dark places defensively, and this is right there with them. Just got to work through it, just like I have in the past, and go out and play.”

“You’ve got to keep on playing,” Desmond said. “As bad as I want to run and hide – whatever, not necessarily run and hide – but you’ve got to sit here and answer the questions and you’ve got to be a man about it. This is something I’ve done to myself. I can’t blame anybody else or anything. I’ve been here before. I’ve proved to people I can play and I’ve proved to myself I can play. I’m going to do it again.”

Desmond has not felt quite right about his fielding since spring training. He took extra grounders frequently in the spring to find proper timing in his footwork. But he has still fielded tentatively, as if he’s searching. Thursday night, the first hitter of the game, Matt Carpenter, rolled a slow chopper to Desmond. He played himself into awkward hop and his wrists stiffened. The ball thudded off his mitt.

“If I had the answer, I’d give it to you,” Desmond said. “I’m going to keep on grinding. I was out there hoping that they would keep on hitting me groundballs. That’s all you can do, just go out and keep on playing. As long as my name’s in the lineup, I’m going to go out there and play as hard as I can. It’s not a lack of effort. It’s just, I’ve got to execute. And I will.”

As a team beyond Desmond, the Nationals have much to fix. Even if Desmond had made zero this year, the Nationals would still be tied for eighth-most in the majors.

Upon his arrival, and almost daily since, Manager Matt Williams has demanded the Nationals play strong defense. They have so far been perhaps the league’s worst-fielding team. Williams saw no lack of effort, concentration or preparation as the culprit. He reverted to his precise regimen as the antidote.

“We keep going out there tomorrow,” Williams said. “We’ll certainly take full BP and full grounders. It’s scheduled extra work for the pitchers tomorrow. It’s part of the schedule. It’s how we do it all the time. What to make of it, I don’t know.”

“Some of it gets magnified, you kick a couple of balls,” LaRoche said. “Maybe we’re pressing a little. It’s the same way at the plate. Like tonight, nothing going on, guys trying a little too hard to expand the zone and you end up looking worse. It could be the same way defensively. We have a really good defensive club, is the thing. It’s not showing right now, but I have a feeling that by the end of the year those numbers are going to be our specialty. We are just too good defensively to make the kind of errors we are.”

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