Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Ian Desmond has committed a major-league-leading 19 errors already this season.
It ended with a 5-0 loss to the Braves that was in some ways even more gut-wrenching than the four losses that preceded it, all of them crushing on their own merits.
These are trying times for the Nationals, who are finding all sorts of manner in which to lose ballgames. Sometimes they get no offense. Sometimes they score early but can't keep it up. Sometimes they get poor starting pitching. Sometimes their bullpen blows it. And plenty of times lately, they've given away games via wretched glovework, as was the case once again last night.
"We're all agonizing," Jim Riggleman said. "We're all going through a really tough time, one of the tougher times that I've been through. I've been fortunate enough to manage in the big leagues. This is one of the tougher stretches I've experienced. ... Our character is getting tested, and our guys have to pass the test."
But how much longer will the guys on this roster be given the chance to pass this critical test?
From every corner of NatsTown, fans are clamoring for change of some kind, especially some kind of change that would address the majors' worst defense. Mike Rizzo, though, made it pretty clear after last night's loss those types of moves are unlikely at this stage.
"We're always looking to make moves, but this is not [going to be] a knee-jerk reaction from the poor defense we've shown in the last month," the general manager said. "We showed that we could play clean games, because we did early in the season. I don't see any reason why we can't revert back to that and play cleaner, more efficient ballgames again."
It's difficult to imagine the Nats playing any worse in the field. Quite simply, they've been atrocious, especially at key moments when one defensive play can make or break a ballgame.
And when a string of gaffes comes in succession as it did during last night's fateful seventh inning, the result isn't pretty. It began with Ian Desmond booting a routine double-play grounder that might have saved Stephen Strasburg's outing but instead became Desmond's 19th error of the year (far and away the most in baseball). It continued with a stupid decision by Nyjer Morgan to throw to third base on a sacrifice fly when he had no chance to retire that runner and merely allowed the trailing runner to advance. It included a stumbling attempt by Sean Burnett to field a bunt. And it concluded with a sharp grounder bouncing off both Ryan Zimmerman and Desmond.
Riggleman believes players may be getting a little tight in the field, worried about making a mistake and thus increasing their chances of making a mistake.
At least one player, though, continues to espouse confidence. Desmond has been like this his entire professional career, and his recent string of errors isn't going to change that line of thinking. He remains confident in the field.
"Absolutely. No doubt about it," he said. "I wanted that ball to come to me in that situation. I was 100 percent ready for it."
The Nationals knew what they were getting when they named Desmond their starting shortstop. They knew he'd commit errors this season, though perhaps they didn't expect quite this many. Regardless, they remain committed to keeping him in the lineup and in the field.
"He's a very confident young man," Riggleman said. "He's got tremendous leadership ability. He keeps his head up. He's going to be a star in this league. I don't want him to agonize over particular plays and stuff. I just want him to use it as a learning experience and get better at it on a daily basis. ... I'll take nine of him."
As long as Desmond shows signs of improvement, the Nats will keep giving him chances to perform.
"He's a young major-league shortstop," Rizzo said. "And the best thing about young major-league shortstops is that they become second-year major-league shortstops. He's learning on the job. ... But I'll tell you what: His energy, his range, his abilities ... he's going to be around here playing shortstop for us for a long time. He's going to save us a lot of runs down the road. It's growing pains, unfortunately. He makes no excuses for them. I make no excuses for them. There's a guy with terrific upside that plays his butt off every time he goes out there, and there's nobody in this room that feels worse than he does, and that's good. It's a learning experience for him."
Even with his limited experience in the majors, Desmond has already established himself as a leader on and off the field. He's become a team spokesman of sorts, and after last night's loss he assessed what he believes the mood inside the Nats' clubhouse is right now.
"The sense in here is the feeling you get when you just can't catch a break," he said. "That's what it feels like. You just want it to go your way, and it's just not going your way. That's the best description. No one's sad. No one's upset. There's probably some frustrated people in here, but no one's down by any means."
That upbeat tone is a direct reflection of the Nats' manager (who called yesterday's meeting not so much to chew guys out but to re-emphasize a few points) and of the clubhouse's senior-most player. Ivan Rodriguez insists on staying positive and believes the feeling in shared throughout the room.
"Everybody's positive in here," the 38-year-old catcher said. "If you asked everybody, I think everybody's on the same page. We're fine. There's still a lot of games left. There's still a lot of season left. We've got to stay positive."
Fans may not want to hear that kind of approach from a ballclub that has now lost 13 of its last 16 games, including five straight. But it's the tone that's been established from the top of the organization.
As much as everyone wanted to believe the Nationals were capable of making a surprise playoff run this season, Rizzo knew better. He has insisted since last winter that a surge from 103 losses to 90 wins was next-to-impossible. There had to be an intermediate step between the two, and that's what's happening this season. The Nats may end up with 68 wins. They may end up with 73 wins. They may end up with 78 wins.
Whatever the final tally, it will be an improvement over the last two years. And, team officials hope, it will set the stage for a legitimate run in 2011.
In the meantime, Rizzo wants the 2010 Nationals to relax and get back to playing baseball the way they're capable of playing it.
"Guys are pressing right now," he said. "Everyone wants to get big hits and make big plays. They wear losses really hard, and that's really, really good. That's a good thing. It's a tight-knit group of guys as you can see, and I've got their backs."