Nats Again All Over the Place Against Braves

The Braves' Jeff Francoeur, center, Chipper Jones and Mark Teixeira cash in on the Nats' miscues after Francoeur's homer scored three runs, all unearned.
The Braves' Jeff Francoeur, center, Chipper Jones and Mark Teixeira cash in on the Nats' miscues after Francoeur's homer scored three runs, all unearned. (By Gregory Smith -- Associated Press)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 9, 2007

ATLANTA, Sept. 8 -- There already had been two errors, and they already had led to runs, and the Washington Nationals were well on their way to playing their second sloppy game in as many nights. But these are the moments for which Ryan Zimmerman is around, the types of plays he is supposed to make now and in the future. When his team is reeling, Zimmerman is to be the rock.

But Saturday night, on a ball that Zimmerman fielded and prepared to turn into a double play, he couldn't come close to making an accurate throw. The play went as an error, Zimmerman's fourth in two nights, and it opened up a four-run inning for the Atlanta Braves in what became a miserable 9-2 loss for the Nationals.

The chatter in the clubhouse afterward was predictable: Both Zimmerman and Manager Manny Acta played down Zimmerman's struggles the last two nights, and both said there is nothing physically wrong with the 22-year-old. The organization believes the Zimmerman has Gold Glove ability and will, in short order, be known as the best defensive third baseman in the game. But the fact is this: He leads all National League players with 23 errors, and his misplays the last two nights have badly hurt the Nationals.

"I feel fine," he said. "The first play I got in the game took a tough hop. I threw that one fine. It's not in my head or anything. I just rushed it and made a bad throw. Because of what happened yesterday, it seems worse."

It's worth pointing out that both shortstop Felipe Lopez and center fielder Nook Logan committed errors that led to runs, and the Nationals -- a much-improved defensive club for most of this season -- have a mind-boggling eight errors in their past two games. It's also worth pointing out that Zimmerman, in part because of his tremendous range, leads all major league third baseman in total chances.

Yet it also can't be denied that his error last night changed the game. Left-hander Matt Chico allowed two unearned runs in the first because Lopez booted a perfect double-play ball, his second error in as many nights. But Chico cruised from there until the fifth, when he allowed a pair of one-out singles.

That's where it got shoddy. Chipper Jones drove a ball to straightaway center, and Logan backed up to the wall to make the catch. But he couldn't.

"I got too close to the wall, hit the wall, dropped the ball," Logan said.

So the bases were loaded for Mark Teixeira. Chico got ahead 0-2, and on the third pitch, Teixeira checked his swing. Catcher Jesus Flores appealed to first base umpire Jim Reynolds. Reynolds ruled Teixeira didn't swing.

That was not well received in the Nationals' dugout, where bench coach Pat Corrales threw up his arms. From across the diamond, Reynolds ejected Corrales.

"It's my fault," Corrales said. "That's not my job. I acted like an idiot and got ejected. I apologize to the players, Manny and the organization."

What followed next hurt more. Teixeira hit a bouncer to third, and Zimmerman ranged toward the line and gathered it in nicely.

"I made the hardest part of the play," Zimmerman said. "I short-hopped it. I think I had a little bit more time."

He rushed to third and stepped on the bag for the force-out, then whipped it across the diamond to try to double up Teixeira. The throw was nowhere near first baseman Dmitri Young. One run scored, and on the next pitch Chico threw -- a slider on the outside part of the plate -- Jeff Francoeur took a mighty cut. The drive barely eluded right fielder Austin Kearns, who hurled himself into the wall. But the ball bounced on top of the fence, then over, a three-run homer that put the Braves up 6-0.

"Obviously, we wanted the check swing," Acta said. "But he ended up hitting into a double play, and we just didn't finish the play."

Acta has been among Zimmerman's most vocal supporters, talking about how many runs he has saved by making plays that aren't routine. Before his four errors the past two nights, Zimmerman had committed four errors in his previous 39 games combined, dating back to July 27.

"I'll get concerned if he does it for a week or a month," Acta said. He also dismissed the notion that Zimmerman is over-thinking his throws.

"When it's a mental [problem], guys just struggle with every throw and have to take time off and get some type of psychological program and stuff," Acta said. "That's not the case, because he made some throws to first base today."

Yet on his next chance, with opposing pitcher Chuck James running in the sixth, Zimmerman threw wide of the bag. Young tracked it down in plenty of time to retire James, and Zimmerman took some ribbing on his way to the dugout.

It all led to a strange line for Chico: Five innings, six runs, no earned runs -- all for a team that came into Saturday having allowed the fewest unearned runs in the NL.

"They didn't score because of the errors," Chico said. "It was the pitches after that."

But if the plays had been made before, there would have been no ensuing questions. Nor would there be questions about the star third baseman's apparent shakiness.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company