Nationals’ defense costing runs, causing frustration

Washington Nationals starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez, center, is pulled from a baseball game during the fifth inning against the Oakland Athletics, Sunday, May 11, 2014, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

(AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Back in the fall, from his first moment as the Washington Nationals’ new manager, Matt Williams declared a clear priority. “You bring your glove to work every day,” Williams said at his introductory news conference, underscoring the belief that defense would be the bedrock of his team. He created a new position for a coach, Mark Weidemaier, to coordinate the Nationals’ defensive alignments. He carved space every day of spring training to emphasize specific principles and fundamentals.

Six weeks into the season, the Nationals’ efforts to improve their defense have fallen flat. By most every measure, they have one of the worst defenses in the National League, costing them runs, turning wins into losses and, in some cases, causing frustration to overflow. Still, the Nationals believe their defense will turn into the unit they hoped it would be.

“It got better last year,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “I see it getting better. You’ve got a couple of guys that we bounced around – Anthony [Rendon] has been bounced around to second and third, back and forth. [Shortstop Ian Desmond] has had a slow start defensively, same way he did last year. Hopefully, he responds the same way he did last year. We work hard at it every day. We focus in quite a bit on it. I expect it to be better.”

The Nationals were to begin a three-game series Monday night in Arizona one victory above .500. Their weekend sweep at the hands of the A’s included Sunday’s blow-up by Gio Gonzalez, whom pitching coach Steve McCatty restrained in the dugout following defensive miscues that led to a devastating home run.

“I think that’s a normal part of the longevity of a baseball season,” Rizzo said. “He wasn’t the only guy frustrated. A lot of guys were frustrated. I think that’s what good, close teams do. They sometimes vent on each other. But it’s within the family, so you can get away with it.”

By the time Rizzo walked into the clubhouse postgame, he said, “it was back to normal.” The Nationals may not be in a nosedive, but after this weekend, cockpit lights are starting to blink and beep. Their defense, supposed to have become a strength, is a primary reason.

The Nationals have committed 34 errors, second-most in the NL and third in the majors. Other metrics suggest the problems run deeper – it’s not only that they’re botching balls hit to them, but also reaching fewer batted balls than other teams.

Entering the season, the Nationals planned to enhance their defensive shifts, a tactic rarely used under former manager Davey Johnson. So far, it has provided little boost. The Nationals entered Monday having fielded 97 balls “out of zone,” according to FanGraphs, meaning plays outside what would be considered the typical coverage area for a fielder. Only five teams have fielded fewer.

According to Baseball-Reference’s defensive efficiency measure, the Nationals have turned 66.3 percent of balls in play into outs. Only the Cleveland Indians rate worse. Overall, the Nationals’ defense has cost them 14 runs, most in the major leagues, according to FanGraphs.

“We gotta catch the ones we need to get to,” Weidemaier said. “That’s the bottom line. Make the plays we need to. . . . You make errors, you’re not gonna be efficient. Whether or not the balls in play we made into outs, we’ve gotta catch the ball.”

As Nationals fielders have botched plays, their pitchers have responded poorly. Gonzalez provided the starkest example Sunday. After Desmond could not complete an awkward throw to first in time for an out, Gonzalez allowed his first three-run homer to A’s catcher Derek Norris.

One inning later, a similar scenario unfolded – fielders converged on Yoenis Cespedes’s foul pop, but no took charge and it dropped. Gonzalez walked Cespedes, and Norris blasted another three-run homer.

Television cameras did not show Gonzalez’s reaction out of concern lip-reading viewers would pick up on profanities. Once he reached the dugout, Gonzalez slammed his glove on the bench. Moments later, cameras spotted him screaming to the other end of the dugout, McCatty’s arms wrapped around him. McCatty would walk Gonzalez down the tunnel to cool him down.

“It’s all over,” Williams said before Monday night’s game. “It’s frustrating. It’s competition. It’s all of those things at the end of a long weekend and things not going right for us. Everybody wants to win, including Gio, including the rest of us. It’s all over.”

McCatty declined to comment on the incident, but said: “It’s no big deal.”

For the second time in 18 starts, Gonzalez’s goofy, gregarious demeanor had ceded to his competitive vigor. Last August, Gonzalez and Jayson Werth engaged in a dugout confrontation after an inning in which Gonzalez failed to cover first base.

“He’s a competitor,” Rizzo said. “He gets intense on the mound. We’ve got a lot of intense and competitive guys. When you’re going through that kind of a stretch, getting swept on the road, things happen. But I think that’s the sign of a very close-knit ball club. When you can do that, it’s like yelling at your brother. You can do it. Nobody else outside the family can, but you can.”

Nationals pitchers have frequently been placed in bad situations thanks to the defense behind them. But they have been worse than expected in limiting damage.

The Nationals have allowed 28 unearned runs, more than any team in baseball. The Indians have made more errors, but their pitchers have surrendered six fewer unearned runs. As the Nationals’ errors have caused frustration, so to has the pitchers’ response to them.

On May 3, Werth’s error in right field immediately preceded a first-inning, three-run homer off Stephen Strasburg. Even though the Nationals came back to win that night, Werth identified the homer as a problem without prompting. The situation hasn’t improved since.

“It doesn’t have to be like that,” Werth said then. “It really doesn’t. Making errors is part of that game. It shouldn’t lead to, you make an error and lose the game because of it. It feels like it happens a lot. We got to stop doing that. We got to stop making errors. But we got to stop making errors and then not recover from it.”

The schedule allows the Nationals ample time to recover from their early-season defensive malaise. So far, an area Williams vowed to improve has been their biggest problem. The Nationals, in short, have not been bringing a good enough version of their gloves to work.

James Wagner contributed to this report from Phoenix.

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