BOSTON — Something has happened to these Washington Nationals. Sure, the 162-game season is just seven games old, but over three-plus hours here Monday, the Nationals looked more befuddled than they have in some time. The box score will say they made only one error, but, in reality, they committed at least three critical defensive blunders with an errant throw and misplayed flyballs. Jordan Zimmermann couldn’t find the strike zone and was pulled in the third inning.
It’s not unexpected for starting pitchers to have bad days. But Monday’s rough game turned into a debacle as the Nationals, a preseason World Series favorite, continued their inconsistent defensive play while the offense awoke late. Since he took over last year, Manager Matt Williams has hammered defense into the players’ heads. So after he watched Monday’s 9-4 loss in agony, he didn’t hold a powwow to discuss it with them.
“There’s no need to say anything,” he said. “Balls are up there for four or five seconds, they need to be caught. Groundballs are hit, they need to be caught and thrown across the diamond. It’s got to get better.”
When he meets with reporters after games, Williams doesn’t often single out players or beat down the team’s play, instead focusing on the positive and searching for a solution. His comments after Monday’s game were direct and his demeanor stern.
He called the loss “about as bad as you can get” but said he didn’t consider the loss a wake-up call for a team with lofty expectations.
“We’re fully awake,” he said. “Believe me. With all that’s been said about our club, we’re fully aware of it.”
The Nationals (2-5) aren’t at full strength and have played only 4 percent of their season. The absence of Jayson Werth, Denard Span and Anthony Rendon helps explain the offense’s meager production and, partly, the defense’s instability. Werth made his season debut Monday after rehabbing his surgically repaired right shoulder, but one player isn’t enough to make an immediate change.
“We’re not playing the type of ball we want to play at the moment, but a week ago we were set to win the World Series as far as [analysts] were concerned,” Werth said. “And now, I don’t know where we’re at now. It’s the old cliche of: Get ’em tomorrow.”
Monday should have been a happier day. Werth was back, and Rendon and Span took notable steps in their respective rehabs. The pomp and circumstance of the Red Sox’ home opener offered reminders of how much fun baseball can be. The weather was beautiful for the 37,203 in attendance. The city trotted out two of its star athletes, Tom Brady and Pedro Martinez, during pregame ceremonies. But just 10 outs into the game, the Nationals trailed 4-0.
From the first batter, it was clear Zimmermann didn’t have his normally solid command. He walked Red Sox leadoff hitter Mookie Betts on five pitches, and the Boston center fielder then stole both second and third base on one pitch.
The Nationals employed a shift against David Ortiz, which meant shortstop Ian Desmond was alone on the left side of the infield. Betts beat catcher Jose Lobaton’s throw to second, and, knowing there was no one covering third, Betts blazed over there, too. Zimmermann raced over and caught the throw, but he was late. The Nationals challenged the play to no avail.
Betts had already robbed Bryce Harper of a two-run home run in the top of the first inning, but it only got worse. Ortiz singled over Werth’s head in left and Betts scored. The Nationals’ 1-0 deficit then spiraled out of control in the second and third innings, when Boston increased its lead to 8-0.
Desmond committed his fifth error of the season by pulling first baseman Ryan Zimmerman off the bag with a poor throw on Xander Bogaerts’s grounder. Former Nationals catcher Sandy Leon then singled, one of his three hits on the day. Then Zimmermann hung a slider to Betts, who clobbered it over the Green Monster seats for a three-run homer.
“I just didn’t have a feel for the ball and really had no clue where it was going all day,” Zimmermann said.
The bottom of the third led to more head shaking. Zimmermann hit back-to-back batters — Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval. Mike Napoli hit a towering flyball to left-center field, but Werth and center fielder Michael A. Taylor looked helpless. Werth said the high sky and sun played factors, while Taylor said the wind moved the ball dramatically.
Three batters later, Leon drove in a run when he hit a flyball to right-center, and Harper and Taylor let it fall in, a combination, they said, of miscommunication and the wind.
After Zimmermann gave up another hit, a soft infield single by Betts that neither Yunel Escobar nor Desmond could reach, Williams emerged from the dugout to pull the starter. The Nationals’ starting pitching has been strong so far this season but Zimmermann left the game after 21/3 innings. He allowed nine hits and eight runs, seven earned, with the team’s defense turning his bad afternoon into a nightmare.
The Nationals preserved some dignity on solo home runs by Zimmerman and left-handed-hitting Danny Espinosa, and a triple and run scored by Clint Robinson in the fifth. But by then, the Nationals were already deep in a hole dug by their pitching and burrowed further by their defense.
“Our business is to win games,” Williams said. “We aim to do that every single day. When you shoot yourself in the foot, though, it’s difficult.”