Washington Nationals' sloppy play is catching up to them

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, June 28, 2010; D01

BALTIMORE -- The look-on-the-bright side approach isn't going to wash for the Washington Nationals anymore. The company line that "we're playing hard, but we're just losing" isn't good enough any more, at least not when General Manager Mike Rizzo is in the house. If Manager Jim Riggleman is a natural soothing good cop, then Rizzo must have been born with "bad cop" on his crib.

"We're underachieving. We're playing bad baseball. Defensively, we're giving away far too many outs. We're not situational hitting," Rizzo said after the Nats blew leads of 6-0, 5-0 and 3-0 in consecutive games to get swept by the Orioles, who entered the series with the worst record in baseball. "You can't win major league games by doing that."

On Friday and Saturday, the Nats became the first team since 1971 to blow leads of five or more runs in consecutive games to the same opponent. To do it against their local rivals made their sin against the laws of baseball probability even more deflating. What Ghana is to U.S. soccer, the Orioles are to Nats fans.

After such historic squandering, losing 4-3 on Sunday was mere Nats play.

"This is not and should not be a 10-games-under-.500 team," said Rizzo, whose club, 20-15 in May, has plummeted to 33-43 with weeks of progressively sloppier play. "We have seven guys who've played in the World Series and others who've been in the playoffs. And that doesn't include some of our best players. I can't believe that playing the Orioles in June is the most stressful thing they have ever done."

Add as many drips of sarcasm as your recipe requires.

On Friday, rookie Ian Desmond and veteran Cristian Guzmán combined for four errors, leading to four unearned runs. On Sunday, second baseman Adam Kennedy threw away a ball on a double-play pivot, allowing an unearned run to score in another one-run loss.

The level of Nats blundering in the last 30 days is almost incomprehensible. Four infielders -- Desmond (eight errors), Guzmán (seven), Kennedy (six) and Zimmerman (four) -- have made 25 errors in 28 games. The rest of the Nats have contributed five more errors. How bad is that? In the last 30 days, the Reds' entire team has made only seven errors. And the Yankees only have made 24 errors all season.

In those 28 games, Nats errors have led to 29 unearned runs -- 20 more than the average team in that time. Those extra gift runs are the reason the Nats are now all but an afterthought in the National League East or wild-card race for this season, rather than being at .500.

The unraveling began on May 30 in San Diego when a wild throw in extra innings give the Padres a one-run win. Since then, eight more one-run losses have followed, including the Nats' last four straight defeats. The only Nats infielder that has few errors is Adam Dunn (four all year). But his poor footwork and slow reactions make him so immobile at first base that he saves high or low throws, but seldom the wide ones.

At rough spots in a season, team executives sometimes take opposite approaches to motivation and morale. But, at the moment, the Nats are an extreme example.

"If we play with the same effort and cleanness we did the last two games, we'll win our share of games," Riggleman said. "The glass is half full. There are a lot of good things to build on."

Last year, five games into his term as manager, Riggleman's Nats were 40 games under .500 in July (26-66). Now, they have shown enough improvement that 10-games under .500, with Stephen Strasburg pitching Monday in Atlanta, seems like misery.

"I had a five-run lead [on Saturday]. I'm supposed to win that game," said Liván Hernández, who has saved the much-injured starting staff all season. "We're fighting. We'll be all right. We're still going to win a lot of games."

The '10 Nats are a fascinating caldron of conflicting emotions. On one hand, their self-imposed goal of becoming a winning team and wild-card factor this year is patently unrealistic. They'd have to improve by 23 wins to top .500 and by more than 25 to be a remote playoff factor. In the last 50 years, only 19 teams have improved by 25 wins.

So, viewed from the outside, the Nats' current pace (70-92) constitutes some progress and any improvement after the all-star break -- as various injured hurlers return -- could produce a final result that would gain wide praise within the sport. But the Nats hate it.

"It's devastating," Tyler Clippard said of his second relief loss in this O's series. "We're battling our butts off. It's not fun."

What can you do?

"Get a good night's sleep and wake up tomorrow," he said.

"You've got to grind, battle," Willie Harris said.

But you also have to have patience and humor or the game just beats you down. "Last year on June 28th, I was hitting .160. Now I'm hitting .155," Harris said. "I'm right where I need to be."

How much pressure should a team that lost 102 games in '09 put on itself for one-season progress? How much has the increased national attention that hit the Nats when Strasburg arrived (and Bryce Harper was drafted, too) tightened them up or simply distracted them? Yes, the Strasburgs are on national TV again Monday night. And they should be. In the first four starts of his career, Strasburg has fanned 41 men. No other pitcher in baseball this season has fanned that many in any four consecutive starts.

A perverse, manic rising and crashing of expectations has defined this season. Five weeks ago, the last time these two teams finished a series on a Sunday, the Nats won to reach 23-22. With lots of games against losing teams on the schedule until June 27, plus the imminent arrival of Strasburg and rookie Drew Storen, John Lannan said: "We've played great baseball. But we can get better. Then the sky's the limit." Craig Stammen added, "They say if you're in the race on Memorial Day, you'll be in it all season."

Now, June 27 has arrived. Both Lannan and Stammen have pitched themselves back to the minor leagues. And the GM is hot. "If you're a pro," Rizzo said, "make the play."

It is a fan's right to expect huge instant improvement. Perhaps such demands are even the prerogative of those who run a team. But, usually, it is baseball's duty to deny it.

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