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Shaky defense? Don't worry, it's still early

By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2011; 11:29 PM

PORT ST. LUCIE, FLA. - The ball ate Ian Desmond up as he backed away. Perhaps in hindsight, the Washington Nationals' starting shortstop should have charged it. In any event, it squirted out of his glove and came to rest in the dirt at his feet, as the batter hit the first base bag without a throw, Desmond's second error of the spring, the Nationals' 13th in nine spring training games.

In the same inning, the second inning of the Nationals' 4-3 win in 10 innings over the New York Mets at Digital Domain Park on Tuesday, non-roster second baseman Brian Bixler dropped a perfect throw from catcher Wilson Ramos on a stolen-base attempt but was spared an error by a generous official scorer. And three innings later, non-roster outfielder Jeff Frazier botched a sinking liner in right, error No. 14 for the Nationals this spring, and their ninth in their past four games.

"It's spring training. You're not going to be where you are in, say, mid-May," said veteran utility man Jerry Hairston, who played flawless defense at third base on Tuesday. "I don't care if you're Ozzie Smith. It's a game of repetition. You'll make some errors, boot some balls, maybe not hit the cutoff man. You never want to read into spring training. The real show is opening day. And you just want to be ready for that."

Is this going to be another one of those spring training stories where everyone explains away poor performance by saying it's still early, and players are still getting their timing and touch down? Yes, sort of. Because that is one of the factors in the errors, the Nationals say.

But there are others.

"We're here at 6 a.m., working out, taking ground balls, taking [batting practice], putting in full days' work before the game even starts," Desmond said. "It's not like you're not concentrating [during games], but by the time the game starts you're not as fresh."

"I think more than anything, the fields are hard," Manager Jim Riggleman said. "Any time that ball gets a second hop, it's got that overspin, and it's really taking off, and I can see where we've missed a couple of balls [because of it]."

And of course, for every error the Nationals made, you could cite a corresponding brilliant play that didn't make the box score. In Tuesday's win, Hairston, at third base, made a nice diving stop of a hot grounder, and Alex Cora, at shortstop, made a sliding stop of another scorcher. Center fielder Rick Ankiel contributed a running, leaping catch on the warning track. In left, Michael Morse made a leaping catch near the wall and, on a different play, a fine one-hop throw to home plate to beat the runner - only to see catcher Derek Norris drop the ball during the tag.

The Nationals, though, don't merely expect this team to be a competent defensive team. By replacing Adam Dunn with Adam LaRoche at first base and essentially replacing Josh Willingham with Jayson Werth in the outfield, the Nationals built much of their offseason strategy around defense. And with plenty of athleticism up the middle, they believe this could be a top-tier defensive team. And it still might.

Some of the defensive miscues have been frustrating. (Desmond, said Riggleman, "has got to come and get that ball," referring to his error Tuesday. "He knows that. But it's part of the process, and I'm sure he'll be more aggressive on the next one.") But of the Nationals' 14 errors, only five have been committed by players projected to be in their starting lineup (two by Desmond, two by second baseman Danny Espinosa and one by catcher Ivan Rodriguez).

Moreover, LaRoche, a defensive wizard who was slowed by a sore shoulder in the early part of camp, played his first game in the field only two days ago. Part of his attraction to the Nationals this winter was that he can prevent throwing errors by the team's infielders.

"There's no substitute for being out there [in games]," LaRoche said. "A month from now, it's all going to be just a natural reaction. But right now, having not been out there for six, seven months, it's hard to jump-start it. It's not necessarily about catching the ground ball and making the throw. It's more the mental side of it, getting comfortable again with different situations, different movements."

Entering Tuesday's play, 14 of the 30 teams in major league baseball were averaging at least one error a game, so it isn't only the Nationals for whom it's still early, for whom the fields are rock-hard and the morning regimens taxing. And when Riggleman was asked whether the team's shaky defense was something he felt he needed to address with the team, he shot back quickly.

"We address [defense] every day," Riggleman said. "We take a 15- or 20-minute slot every day for nothing but isolated ground balls, each guy at his position - just pound him with ground balls, make throws and turn double plays.

"You just do it, and it'll get better or it won't."

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