All along, the Nationals have known the rookie shortstop’s defense lags behind his offense, but this was the exact type of play they needed a major leaguer to make. The Nationals led 2-1, and they knew that, with their lineup, they couldn’t give away any runs. The ball bounced once and deflected off Kieboom’s body, rolling too far to give him a real chance at throwing out the runner. His fourth error in 10 career games tied the score.
On Tuesday, the Nationals optioned Kieboom back to Class AAA Fresno when they activated third baseman Anthony Rendon off the injured list. The team also placed left-handed reliever Tony Sipp on the IL with a strained oblique and recalled right-hander Erick Fedde from Class AA Harrisburg.
“[Kieboom is] pressing a little bit,” Manager Dave Martinez said Monday night before the roster moves. “He just needs to play the game like he knows he can. Like we know he can. He’s just got to slow everything down and take one step at a time.”
Martinez first said that when Kieboom committed two errors in his first six games and the manager sat him for the series finale against the St. Louis Cardinals. On Monday night, asked how Kieboom could slow down for real this time, Martinez hesitated for a beat.
“I don’t have the answer to that,” he said. “Every guy is different. I’ll be honest with you: I came up at 21, and it happened to me. The game just gets sped up. And it took me a while till I figured it out. When I finally realized, I can play here, things started turning around.”
Kieboom, 21, denied the game looked too fast for him the first time Martinez suggested it, and he denied it again Monday night.
“It might appear that way, but it’s not fast,” Kieboom said. “The way I’ve been playing has been unacceptable. By all means, there are all these plays I’ve missed, or I need to make and I usually do make. There’s no excuses as to why they’re not being made. It’s just the fact of the matter is that’s what’s happened and all I can do is learn from it and better myself going forward.”
The Nationals need Kieboom to better himself because they need his bat. But, right now, his defense puts the team at risk when runs are at a premium and the team’s roster is riddled with injuries.
Rendon’s return from the injured list gives the Nationals more flexibility on the left side of the infield. Yet the lineup uncertainty continues with catcher Yan Gomes (left forearm contusion) and outfielder Andrew Stevenson (back spasms), who both left Monday night’s loss with injuries. X-rays Monday night returned negative for Gomes, and it’s not clear how serious the spasms are for Stevenson.
Kieboom’s struggles are not unprecedented. Last season, he committed 26 errors in 118 games between advanced Class A Potomac and Class AA Harrisburg. In the two seasons before, after the Nationals drafted the Georgia high schooler 28th overall in 2016, he combined for 20 errors in 87 games.
On Monday, Kieboom stressed that he hadn’t let his poor play snowball. In recent at-bats, Martinez said, he has seen Kieboom move away from a patient approach at the plate in favor of more violent hacks, and he attributed that to a young player trying to lift his team in a time of need.
After the game, Martinez said his main frustration with the defense is extending innings. Every time the Nationals didn’t secure an easy out, it led to more pitches and fewer innings for Scherzer, with only one reliable arm in the bullpen.
“When you give teams 31 outs a game, 32 outs a game, it’s tough to win,” Martinez said. “You’ve got your horse out there, pitching really well. … [The defense] cost him another inning. You get Max out there in the seventh inning, we’re in great shape. But we’ve got to start playing defense. The hitting comes and goes. But we’ve got to catch the ball.”
After the game, Scherzer maintained defense wasn’t at fault for the loss, that “everybody makes mistakes,” that he’d hung sliders that the Brewers crushed.
“You can’t point the finger,” he said. “It’s part of the game.”
In the eighth inning Monday, the Brewers hit Sipp hard and padded their lead to 5-3. It looked as though they might get another run because, on a Sipp wild pitch and a throwing error on a pickoff attempt, runners reached second and third with one out. Sipp got second baseman Mike Moustakas to ground to short and, though Kieboom fielded it cleanly, his throw forced first baseman Howie Kendrick to dive to his right. Kendrick caught it, the inning ended, but nothing came easy.
After every game, Kieboom has answered every question while his expression and voice never waver. To come out of the struggles, he said, he just needs to be himself, to change nothing.
“What people have seen isn’t me as a baseball player, isn’t me at all,” he said. “I can’t wait till I’m myself again.”