OAKLAND — Under Manager Matt Williams, the Washington Nationals entered the season with a focus on improving their defense. Through 35 games, that effort appears to be going in the wrong direction.
The Nationals have made 32 errors, the third-highest total in baseball — a year after their 107 errors were the seventh most. In an 8-0 loss Friday night to the Athletics, the Nationals added three more to their error total, resulting in a pair of unearned runs.
“Everybody’s going to make errors, but you certainly don’t want to make multiple errors in a game and [Friday] was a case we did that,” Williams said. “You’ve got to help yourself, and any team you’re playing, you give them extra outs, you’re looking for trouble. And we got that [Friday].”
The Nationals fell to the Athletics in the opening game of the three-game series mostly because of Doug Fister’s shaky command in his first start back from a lat strain and Oakland’s starter Tommy Milone’s eight shutout innings. Fister, the Nationals’ big offseason trade acquisition, allowed seven runs, five earned, over 4 1/3 innings. But the Nationals’ shaky defense, including a throwing error by Fister in the first inning, undercut their play.
“We need to work on that,” catcher Wilson Ramos said. “That’s too many errors. We have to fix that. We have to concentrate more and play good D. If you play good defense, you have an opportunity to win a lot of games. It’s not only hit and hit and hit. We have to play defense first and work with the bat. We need to work with the defense.”
Three batters into Friday’s game, Josh Donaldson hit a groundball in between the mound and third base and Fister, an agile man for his 6-foot-8 frame, fielded the ball cleanly. But as his momentum took him away from first base, Fister unfurled a wild throw wide of first baseman Kevin Frandsen. Donaldson ended up on third and scored when Brandon Moss followed with a single.
“It was just a terrible throw,” Fister said. “It’s one of those things goofing around in practice and things I’ll throw those balls and feel like it’s normal. [Friday] I kinda yanked it a little bit. I don’t know what to attribute it to, but I threw it in right field which is unacceptable.”
In the fifth inning, Donaldson reached base thanks to a throwing error by third baseman Anthony Rendon. On a tough in-between hop, Rendon waited, grabbed the ball and fired a low throw to Frandsen, who was making his first start of the season at first base for a hobbled Adam LaRoche. The throw scooted past Frandsen.
Rendon has played third base well in Ryan Zimmerman’s absence, including a difficult bare-handed grab-and-throw in the fourth inning, but his errant throw in the fifth preceded Moss’s two-run home run off Fister to give the Athletics a 6-0 lead. Scott Hairston committed his team’s third error in the sixth inning when he dropped a routine flyball.
Making errors is a problem, but recovering from them has also been a concern. The Nationals have allowed a league-high 28 unearned runs. Other teams with higher error totals have allowed less runs to score after their defensive mistakes. The Cleveland Indians, for example, have committed a baseball-leading 35 errors but allowed 22 unearned runs. The Los Angeles Dodgers have made 34 errors but 18 unearned runs. Pitchers must recover after a defensive miscue.
The Nationals essentially need to stop playing with fire, Williams said, because they are getting burned.
“It’s what you ask for when you do that,” he said. “Want to play clean baseball, certainly, and you’re asking for trouble if you give them extra outs. Any team can beat you, and they showed us [Friday].”
Friday’s game was something of a setback when it seemed the defense was righting itself following a tough April. They made 26 errors through the first 28 games, then just three errors in their first six May games. Shortstop Ian Desmond (eight errors) hasn’t committed an error since April 21.
The Nationals rank
19th 29th in the majors in defensive efficiency – essentially the number of balls in play converted into outs — with a .691 .665 rate.