Defensive Lapses Cost Washington Nationals Again in 4-2 Loss to Philadelphia Phillies

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 1, 2009

PHILADELPHIA, May 31 -- Baseball designates no special day for reckoning. It's a long season -- everybody says that -- which is why nobody worries about a loss, or even six of them. There is always the next day; everybody says that, too. Myopia makes the losing manageable. Or at least it does, until two months are already gone, a team is 23 games under .500, a season is lost, an off day beckons, and the reckoning is too grim to even contemplate.

With Sunday's 4-2 defeat against Philadelphia at Citizens Bank Park, the Washington Nationals have reached a point where taking a step back, taking stock of who they are, produces a conclusion as frightening as the baseball itself. They've lost six in a row, 15 of 17 and 18 of 21. Their deficiencies are, at once, static and historic. One must retreat through franchise history to 1969 to find a worse record after 49 games. That year's expansion Expos team was 12-37, and finished 52-110. This year's team is 13-36.

What can be done to fix this?

Wrong question; that presumes it can be fixed.

"If I told you what the key is to fixing this, I'd be lying," veteran relief pitcher Julián Tavárez said.

"I don't have that answer," Adam Dunn said. "If I did, I would have tried to do it in April."

"Manny is not making errors. Manny's not turning double plays, he's not striking out," Ryan Zimmerman said, defending his manager, Manny Acta. "When it comes down to it, it's each and every person's fault in this room. Individually, we all have to do better. I think some people need to look in the mirror and realize if they don't make a change or continue to work and get better then somebody else is gonna get a shot, because what do people have to lose around here? If they bring somebody in who hasn't played before it's not like we're gonna lose more games."

At this point, Washington's losses are damning only because they reinforce the same old shortcomings. On Sunday, the Nationals lost by two runs. Philadelphia's first run scored when catcher Josh Bard, trying to make a tag at home, failed to hold a perfect relay throw. Philadelphia's third run scored when Anderson Hernández, trying to turn a 6-4-3 double play that would have saved John Lannan from a first-and-third one-out jam, couldn't pull the ball from his mitt; he never even bothered with the throw to first. Philadelphia's fourth run scored when Austin Kearns, a corner outfielder masquerading in center, took a meandering path to a deep Ryan Howard liner. He saw the ball too late, and half-ducked away from it, as if it were a dagger. That triple scored Chase Utley and helped the Phillies pad the lead that gave Jamie Moyer his 250th career win.

"Yeah, it's the separator," Bard said. "They play good defense, we don't, and we lose."

Even when Washington doesn't commit dictionary-definition errors -- and none of the aforementioned plays qualified -- the team still manages to cost itself. The Nationals are short on focus, short on luck, short on natural gifts. One front-office member said the team, during its three-game series earlier this week against the New York Mets, lost the chance at nine outs on fielding gaffes that didn't count as errors.

Not like the Nationals don't make plenty. They have 48, more than anybody in baseball. Three of the 22 players with six or more errors this year play for the Nationals.

On Sunday morning, Washington made at least a cosmetic attempt to fix itself. Though the team performs infield or "fundamentals" practice before every home game, logistics -- including when the team has access to the field -- make infield practice more difficult on the road. Still, for this game, Acta organized a session.

The perception meant more than the practice itself. Those in the organization acknowledge that pregame infield practice is, by and large, a tool that is too short and too simple to help much. On this day, players at every infield position fielded four balls. Outfielders charged four grounders, throwing to cut-off men, throwing to the bases. When Dunn tried his throw home, it sailed wide by 15 feet, missing the backstop.

"We are playing bad defense, so maybe what we're doing at home [games] is not enough," Acta said. "But I don't think taking infield on the road here and there is gonna fix it."

Pressed further on his team's defense, asked about how things can improve, he said, "Well, you work. Isn't Nick [Johnson] a good first baseman? He's got five errors. Isn't [Ryan] Zimmerman a great third baseman? He's got six. And they're working. So, you tell me. Keep on working. What are you going to do -- cross your arms and that's it? We just have to keep on working, doing whatever it takes and hopefully it will get better."

Privately, some in Washington's front office feared even in February that this team would suffer from abominable defense. The team was overloaded with corner outfielders, including a few who better fit the profile of American League designated hitters. The 25-man roster -- at least until Roger Bernadina and Justin Maxwell had cameos -- lacked a natural center fielder. The Nationals, compensating for their 2008 offense, looked for bats at the expense of mitts. Extra days of infield practice won't change those players' skill sets.

"I think there's some validity to that, yeah," acting general manager Mike Rizzo said. "I think our concentration was on trying to score more runs and becoming a more potent offensive team. Like I said, the unexpectedness or the degree of the defensive decline is what is surprising and frustrating."

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