The Washington Post

Nationals infielders show up early to work on their defense

Ian Desmond on Saturday against the Cardinals. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

More than four and half hours before Wednesday’s game, the afternoon after committing another two defensive errors, most of the Nationals‘ infielders and backups were on the field at Nationals Park fielding groundballs with Manager Matt Williams watching. Even though defense was a main focus in spring training, the Nationals have committed a major league-leading 23 errors, including two by Anthony Rendon on Tuesday night. After the game, Williams said he was “baffled” by the continued defensive mistakes and vowed to continue working hard to improve.

But on Wednesday afternoon, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Rendon came on their own to receive early extra groundballs, which is normally meant for the bench players. Williams made clear in his pre-game chat with reporters that the infielders came out of a personal desire to improve not because coaches instructed them to.

“They want it,” Williams said. “They’ve come to us and said, ‘Let’s do some more.’ And that’s a good thing. … That’s their decision. [Desmond, Espinosa and Rendon are] playing every day so we’re not expecting them to do extra, extra. But they came on their own free will [Wednesday afternoon], which is good, which shows me something. They care about it.”

Desmond leads the majors and the Nationals with eight errors — and not nine, after a scoring change was issued Tuesday on an error on a ball hit by B.J. Upton in the first inning of the April 11 game against Atlanta. Desmond has struggled the most defensively, but Rendon has committed three and Espinosa has made two. Even though Rendon and Espinosa have made fewer errors than Desmond, coming for more defensive work was a given.

“Guys that are struggling hitting would be in the cages longer taking extra early BP,” Espinosa said. “When the defense isn’t going, it’s the same thing. You get out there and do your thing and work on the backhand, the forehand or doubles plays or throw, you get out there and work on it.”

“There’s nothing you can do in practice, either offensively or defensively, that can relate to what you’re doing in the game,” Desmond added. “But more repetition never hurts. You might find something in BP or fielding practice that clicks .That’s what we’re all searching for: that one thing that clicks. We can’t force it. It’s going to come and hopefully it comes sooner than later.”

The Nationals have under-performed defensively. They have allowed 18 unearned runs. They rank second to last, after the Cleveland Indians, with a .650 mark in defensive efficiency, which is the rate that balls in play are converted into outs. Williams and General Manager Mike Rizzo both believe that defensive slumps exist and the Nationals are mired in one. “I still don’t believe it’s the norm, though,” Williams said. The team hasn’t played crisp baseball overall, but the defense has been the biggest weakness.

“We pride ourselves on our defense and athleticism and that type of thing, so it’s a little surprising that we’ve made this amount of errors,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “We kinda did the same thing last year and improved drastically afterwards. So we’re hoping the same thing happens this year. It’s not lack of effort or work ethic. That’s there. That makes me happy.”

With more repetitions, Rizzo and Williams believe the Nationals will snap out of their funk. Williams said players are working as hard as they should and thinks they are mentally doing fine. This is just a stretch of inconsistent play he hopes will soon end.

“I don’t think we’ve played well — yet,” Williams said. “That’s what I see. There’s been spots of good. There’s been spots of great. We’ve seen big comebacks and things like that. But over the course of a number of games, I don’t think we’ve put it together. Yet.”

Espinosa also believes the Nationals have underachieved defensively. He has been among the least of the team’s defensive concerns but he still came out to the early defensive work because he hasn’t played much with Rendon at third and wanted another opportunity to work on fielding his throws. And, Espinosa said working on defense without balls flying during batting practice is easier.

“With the range we possess and the arm strength, we definitely shouldn’t be where we’re at defensively right now,” Espinosa said.

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010, wrote about high school sports across the region for two years and has covered the Nationals since the middle of the 2012 season.
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