Friday, August 20, 2010

Losing because of the little things

Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Ian Desmond reached second base three times ... but never scored.
PHILADELPHIA — You can blame the Nationals' excruciatingly frustrating 1-0 loss to the Phillies tonight on Adam Dunn not being able to field a sharp grounder to his left. That produced the evening's lone run.

You can blame it on Ian Desmond attempting to steal third with one out in the seventh and getting doubled off second base as a result. That killed one of the best rally opportunities of the evening.

Or you can blame it on the lineup as a whole for continually failing to come through in key situations. It's hard to win when you go 0-for-11 with runners in scoring position.

Really, though, you can't blame this loss on any one of those factors more than the others. If anything, the reason the Nationals lost tonight — and have now lost a staggering 15 consecutive 1-run games on the road — is that they consistently come up short in all of those areas we like to call "the little things."

The Nats did plenty of things well tonight. They got a competent start out of Jason Marquis for the first time all season. They got three more perfect innings from their bullpen. They put 14 men on base (at least one in every inning) against Roy Halladay, Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge. Their rookie shortstop had three hits. Their big slugger reached base three times. Their leadoff man opened the game with a double and then distracted Halladay into committing a balk.

Jim Riggleman emphasized the positives when he made some brief remarks to his players after this one.

"You just faced two Cy Young candidates in [Tim] Hudson and Halladay, and you had them both on the ropes," the manager said. "Be proud of that. We're going to get over the hump. I'd rather have them out there and not drive them in than not have them out there. To play Atlanta and Philadelphia as tough as our guys are playing them ..."

Riggleman paused for a second, realizing how this was going to come across to a public that isn't interested in sugarcoating.

"I know it's not what fans want to hear," he continued. "It sounds like I'm accepting that we got beat. I'm not accepting it at all. I hate it. But I'm proud of the way they're competing against those ballclubs. We're showing ourselves that we can play with these guys."

So what's the difference between the Braves or Phillies and the Nationals? Those teams do the little things necessary to win a close ballgame. The Nats don't.

The Braves today won for the 22nd time this season in their final at-bat. That's 22 games that went down to the wire but tilted in their favor because they did something right when it mattered most. The Phillies are now 20-12 in 1-run games. They've committed the fifth-fewest errors in the NL. They're successful on 83 percent of stolen base attempts, best in baseball.

Do the Nationals do any of those things well?

That's the hurdle the Nats must overcome if they are going to become a legitimate contender. For five years, they didn't have the talent to match their toughest competitors. Slowly but surely, they've gotten within striking distance in that department. They may not be able to go toe-to-toe with the Phillies in the talent department, but the disparity isn't outrageous anymore.

No, the biggest disparity between these two clubs — one which is trying to win its third straight NL pennant, the other which is trying to avoid a third-straight 100-loss season — falls under the category of "intangibles." The Phillies play winning baseball. The Nats don't.

The most critical play of tonight's game (Desmond getting doubled off second base in the seventh) stands out. Desperate to get himself to third with one out so Ryan Zimmerman would have a chance to drive him in with a fly ball, Desmond bolted for third. He got a great jump and probably would have stolen the base easily had Zimmerman not made contact.

But Zimmerman did make contact. He roped a line drive right at Raul Ibanez in left field. Desmond, who was so far down the line with so much forward momentum he felt his best option was to slide into third base, pop himself back up and sprint back to second, actually beat Ibanez's wide throw. He was safe. Except he overslid the bag, and Chase Utley tagged him out to complete the rally-killing double play.

"Every time I get on base, I'm trying to advance to the next base," Desmond said. "He was looking at me every time, and I just timed him up, finally, and was able to get a good jump. Zim got a good pitch to hit. If that ball goes in the gap, two runs score. That's just the way it's kind of going right now. You hit it right at the guy, and he was able to double us off."

Yes, that's the way it seems to go for the Nationals, especially on the road where they're now 21-43.

But how much of that is bad luck, and how much of it is this team's inability to do the little things that give itself a better chance of winning?

The Nats went toe-to-toe with the two-time NL champs and their Cy Young-caliber pitcher tonight. They were in position to pull off what would have been one of their unlikeliest victories of the season. Yes, there's something to be said for that.

But until they learn how to make the most of these opportunities and do the two or three little things necessary to win a 1-run game in a hostile environment, there's going to be a lot more sugarcoating going on inside the Nationals' clubhouse.

And that's not going to overpower the increasingly bitter taste most fans probably have in their mouths right now.


Dave Nichols said...

you couldn't have put this any better Mark. most fans see the parts and think the Nats should be better than their record. truth is, the Nats still make too many mistakes all over the field and find themselves just a bit short.

Sunshine_Bobby_Carpenter_Is_Too_Pessimistic_For_Me said...

Once again, Mark, excellent analysis, and spot on. The little things drive me nuts. It didn't happen tonight, but I cannot remember a Nats player hitting a groundball to the right side with a runner on second and less than two out. Just doesn't happen. On teams like the Yankees, that's de riguer. I keep waiting for it, but I don't believe it's happened at all in 2010.

Desmond stealing in that situation was just bad baseball. The fact that after the game he still hasn't realized it is even more telling.

Somebody's got to sit him down, and inform him on how to play major league baseball. This ain't it.

Anonymous said...

How can you blame Desmond? He had 3 hits tonight (2 off of Halladay) and was trying to make a hustle play. If that ball falls or goes down the line/gap, it scores him and everyone is talking about a tie game.

How about Kevin Mench striking out with a man on 3rd? Or Adam Dunn going down with game tying run on 2nd? Or Roger Bernadina and the 97 guys he left on base tonight?

Doc said...

It's the manager's and coaches' job to set the tone for 'intangibles'. Intangibles are primarily a function of mental discipline. Discipline comes from concentration and focus.

Riggleman would be doing the fans a big favor by incorporating into his positive leadership format, direct review of player mental mistakes.

I'm sure that their are current baseball managers that do that. Felipe Alou did it, so did Frank Robinson.

Faraz Shaikh said...

I am surprised no one is talking about zimm leaving runners on base as well. Bernadina killed the initiative but Zimm didn't do better either. Double plays have been killer for us all season long. Ivan leads the league I believe and also second in career GIDP I think. Not having Hammer should not hurt us so much.

I do prefer Dunn batting ahead of Zimm until the end of this season.

Kevin Rusch, Section406 said...

So everyone's getting on Desmond for stealing there. But if he'd gone _one_ pitch earlier, he scores on Zim's liner to left. Is trying to steal third that bad an idea??

Scooter said...

KR406, I thought the steal was a great idea. I'm not here to pick on the Nats' color commentator, but his was a strong critique, and I heard three reasons why that attempted steal was a mistake:
- there was one out
- it was a one-run game
- one of the best pitchers in baseball was on the mound

Where I come from, those are three excellent reasons why you SHOULD steal third. Throw in the fact that he had the bag stolen easy ... what I'm saying is, this is an example of heads-up baseball that just didn't work. That happens. The larger point still stands: there's a lot these guys could do better. But this? Nah.

On the bright side: Desmond almost pulled a Germany Schaefer, stealing a base and stealing his way back. Almost.

Scooter said...

Whoops. Missed one point. It's entirely possible that Desmond took too long to *stop* -- that is, that he should have noticed Zimmerman's contact and turned around earlier. In that case, yeah, it's not so heads-up. But the steal itself? Still an awesome idea.

Anonymous said...

holy crap leave desi alone, it was a great baseball play and whoever says otherwise knows jackcrap about baseball. getting to third with less than 2 outs is paramount. its just bad luck, as was most of the game, that he got doubled off. hes a game day player and i hope he sticks around

JayB said...

Great write up Mark...Really just what was needed. My money has been well spent so thank you.

I could not agree more with the whole "sugar coating" problem and lack of focus caused by Riggs. Look at what the O's have done just playing with a healthy dose of focus and fear. Riggs is a great guy, good bench coach and terrible manager. Go back and look at this whole career record. He SUCKS....He just does and Nats will not improve past 90 losses with him. Rizzo is no fool so this needed change will come sooner that anyone here thinks. My guess is May 15 2011.

Again, thanks Mark, for understanding just how lame this team, manager and ownership is for thinking they are making any progress at all until they win. Winning is all there is.

Anonymous said...

Riggleman is exactly right. The team is right to be confident. Marquis looked much better. Desmond had a great game and looks like he's ready to settle into the top of lineup for all of next year. Nyjer is looking much better. Zimmerman crushed that ball and is keeping his average above .300 for the year. Strasburg is pitching

We outhit the Phillies with Halladay on the mound, they had no extra base hits and we had three, Desmonds was close and timely. Almost every way i think of the game yesterday, Desmond springs to mind. And the throw wasn't terrible.

To me what I saw was Just a good all around tight baseball game. We are close. Past two years there were times when I absolutely couldn't bear watching. We're already a lot better and now I'm looking forward to Zimmermann and Maya. I'm looking forward to Strasburg. I'm looking forward to Storen, I'm looking forward to Ramos. and Harper, Cole, etc.


Tegwar said...

Mark thanks for trying to educate the fan base.

What I took form Mark’s column is that yes the little things matter. Very small differences can be the determining factor in winning and losing a baseball game and playing the game correctly by the percentages will gain you more wins during a 162 game season. Mark gave Desmond’s unfortunate base running play as an example not the only reason that the Nationals lost. In baseball if you have a runner at second, which is called “in scoring position” for a reason and arguably your best hitter at the plate the odds say that the risk reward of trying to steal 3rd is not a good baseball decision. Desmond could have hit 3 HRs, stolen 3 bases and made a game saving play with his glove and still it would have been a bad baseball decision. Desmond is not the goat of the game and many other mistakes were made but making the correct decisions in the game which is something you can learn will go a long way in making the Nationals a competitive team.

Jeeves said...

I looked at all the stats re shortstops in the major leagues. Desmonds numbers are better than practically all American league shortstops and most national leaguers who are not named Tolowitski, Ramirez, and Reyes. Gonzalez, having the best offensive year of his life and Furcal also have better stats, but that's about it. Granted his OBA is poor, but overall the Nats shortstop is having a darn good rookie season. Now if he can just cut down on those errors.

JayB said...

Longterm.....yes the talent is much better....but don't mistake the "little things" causing loss after loss as easy fixes.

Baseball is not like that...they can have all the talent in the world and still lose 90 games by not playing smart baseball and having key errors (Dunn's two non-errors last night were unbelievable poor plays for a MLB 1st baseman, which he is not).

Manager and coaching is going to be what will make the difference between a talented losing team and a contender with talent. Riggs is just not the guy....look at the facts...he has a long record to judge by and his "sugar coating, excuse making ways here are a big part of the problem.

David said...

Excellent article, Mark.

The sugarcoating is getting hard to take. It seems the Lerners and Stan won't write a check to any broadcaster who doesn't hype Wilson Ramos as the next Carlton Fisk, doesn't believe that the team only needs a starter or two to come off the DL before it can contend, and that at 52-70, is still playing any sort of meaningful baseball.

Stan needs to wake up and realize this is not Atlanta 1990, this is a highly educated market in the age of the Internet that will not respond to having its intelligence insulted. Giving credentials to a few bloggers who, unlike you've done here, tow the company line isn't going to cut it. You can't just throw a mediocre, careless team on the field, and expect people will say OK when you tell us we have like it. This team needs more than Harper or Strasburg. As you point out, it's the little things, which are a result of the "expect to lose" mentality - which starts at the top.

SteveRep44 said...

David has a legitimate point. The idea to steal is a little less valid since it was Zimmerman at the plate. He goes to all fields well. But in this case, he hit the ONLY ball that turns that play into a DP. A little lower, it hits the ground and Desmond scores easy. A little higher, and Des has time to get back to second. Heck, if Zimm swings and misses, Desmond has third stolen.

But the team's overall lack of grasp of how/when to do certain things -- hitting to right to get a runner to third is one of those -- is glaring in things like this.

They're still a long way from changing Riggleman's last line from "We're showing ourselves that we can play with these guys" to "We're showing ourselves that we can BEAT these guys."

David said...


Agree, Riggs is definitely not the guy. He makes fewer excuses than his predecessor, but is not going to change the "expect to lose" mentality this team has had since 2007.

Phil Wood can't go 2 seconds without regurgitating the company line about how the Nats have spent more on draft picks than anyone. But they've also spent less than any team on managers since 2007. The Lerners can't keep cutting corners with these $600,000 a year bargain basement dugout leaders. The Orioles got a spark from Showalter, and the Nats would likely to stop making these mental errors if they had to answer to someone who expected to win.

CapPeterson said...

Thank you, Mark, for the analysis. I came aboard at midseason and am glad I did.

The dialog between JayB and longterm, along with Mark's analysis, gets to the heart of the issue. Yes, Desi looked very comfortable against Halladay last night. I've been put off by some of the ridiculous claims made by Desi's supporters--"the kid" is not really a kid by baseball standards--but he does looks close to breaking out as a MLB SS. JayB is right to stress that "doing the little things" will not happen automatically as the talent level improves. Yet maybe this is working out for the best: "Mr. Positive" Riggleman nurturing the psyches of our tender young players for now, to be replaced by a Frank Robinson-type manager next year when the club is ready to take the next step.

Can't help but flash back to the 1st half of 2005--a much less talented club that "did the little things."

Michael J. Hayde said...

Mark, thank you for answering my diatribe from the game thread so thoroughly. ;-)

This team is certainly CAPABLE of doing "the little things." I was at the July 31 home game against the Phils (, where we tagged Joe Blanton for 3 runs from the get-go and managed to stay competitive despite a Desmond throwing error, Nyjer's GIDP and a bullpen that gave up first the tying runs, then a go-ahead run in the top of the ninth. We didn't roll over - our lead-off guys got to Lidge, setting the table for Zim's 3-run shot. At that moment, every Nats fan in the place believed we could salvage this season; that win ensured we'd take the Phils series, after having just taken a Braves series, all of which came on the heels of Strasburg's shoulder problem. How could it be anything other than a team that has finally learned how to rally?

What hurts is that this team cannot do this with any CONSISTENCY. The momentum was certainly there three weeks ago, and then it vanished without a trace. Heaven help me, but I'm siding with JayB on this one: it's up to Riggleman to hold the players accountable and it's clear - not only by the team's performance, but by his own words - that he's not doing it.

Anonymous said...

This team cannot be winners until they stop desecrating the holiness of the position of first base. Until there is a legitimate first baseman, we can not be a legitimate team.

Anonymous said...

I think Rizzo wanted to trade Dunn, but only for a really sweet deal for the Nats. He didn't get it so his options are:

- take the draft picks for letting him walk

-sign him, then trade him in the offseason (not likely because that would be cold ,two-faced, and other players would remember that and be leery about coming here)

- sign him, get him a personal trainer to lose weight and get in better shape, a yoga instructor so he can stretch and do splits like other first basemen, and a really good first base instructor for the offseason to learn his footwork and glove work around the base, if Dunn is willing to do these things, and hope for a better player starting next year

- trade him next year mid-season

Richard said...

There's some really strange comments on the site re Adam Dunn. Compare his offensive numbers to Teixeira's, for example. Dunn is comparable, especially this year, even though he's been cold the last 10 games. Teixeira is making double what Dunn is. Compare his defense numbers to the average NL first baseman. Dunn is okay. No one can say he isn't a "legitimate first baseman" who thinks about the statistics a minute, not to mention the intangibles like his big left-handed bat in the the lineup and the clubhouse stuff Zimmerman keeps mentioning.

Re Mark's point about not doing the little things, I agree it's frustrating. I'm hoping for improvement as Desmond and Nyjer get more experience in the spotlight and the team gets used to playing together, that is, the same 8 or 9 everyday.

Unknown said...

I'll get my licks in on the dead horse. As Scooter pointed out earlier Desmond stealing third was a good baseball move and anyone who calls it a base-running error (Dribble) is an idiot. No outs, bad move. Two outs, bad move. But with one out and Holliday pitching lights out you need that runner on third with less than 2 outs.

sjm105 said...

I want to continue in support of Desmonds attempted steal last night and also wonder the wisdom of 1. sitting him down or 2. sending him down. I think he has come a long way and yes, fewer errors would be nice but he is developing into a better than decent shortstop and if the errors are reduced next year I think we will have more than a few years to enjoy him. I also realize there is no way management would ever sit him, they are committed to him as well but it bothers me that posters just think its easy to learn or relearn by being sent to the minors. Lannan is the exception not the rule and the jury is actually still out on that.
Also agree with JayB that Riggs is probably not the guy and I do wish the Lerners would spend money on a manager the way they have on draft picks

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't worry about Desmond at this point. Rizzo went out and got Bixler ostensibly so they could experiment with Espinosa at second base. Have to figure that's what's next.

The problem is getting the two major league exposure this year with Riggleman too busy respecting the game and veterans who are about to lose another 100, 3 years running? He has to play the young guys because the "old" veterans aren't getting it done. That should be easy enough to explain to guys like Harris (who will be gone), Kennedy (who may also be gone), Nieves (who will also likely be gone)?

When Livan Hernandez and his "much older brother" can out pitch guys half their age ... even these so-called veterans? There is something wrong. And Riggleman has to stop coddling these guys. He sure as heck didn't coddle Bruney or Bergman and both were and are veterans? Stop the horse hockey and get down to brass tax Riggleman!

Tegwar said...


I don't think it quite that cut and dry. In 40 PA Halliday has given up 1 SH and 3 SF flies with less than 2 outs and a man on third. So thinking that getting to third is not as significant as it might seem. Now you might think well Zimmerman did hit the fly ball so Desmond would have scored? Doubtful, Halliday would have had runners on first and third with one out he would not have thrown the same pitch he would have tried to induce a ground ball for a double play and both the infielders and outfielders would have been in different positions. The questions is would you rather have two chances in driving in Desmond from second or take the risk of stealing third with the small advantage that would give with a sacrifice fly. I’ll give you that it is debatable but it is not clear cut. If Riggleman though getting to third was that advantageous he could have put a play on where Zimmerman’s job was to protect the plate instead of swing away. I would not have agreed with that but it was an option if your goal was a runner on third with less than 2 outs. You are correct that getting the first or third out at third is a cardinal sin; however that does not mean that it is a good idea to risk the second one there. I don’t blame Desmond for losing the game I doubt if the outcome would have changed, as for me I rather have two chances you see it a different way that’s what make baseball the most interesting and best team sport ever invented.

Anonymous said...

Intangibles shimntagibles. The Nats are where they are because of tangibles. Analyzing a play to death may be considered as fun for some but for me; the Nats were a 70 win team at the start of the year and that's pretty damn close to were they will finish. It's not complicated; the starting pitching was atrocious (Marquis and Lannan were counted on to do better but Livon over achieved; so that's pretty much a wash); there are holes in the lineup which will get filled by development; smart trades (Capps for Ramos) and inteligent FA signings (Capps).

Next year's team should touch .500 because of potential good starting pitching; patience folks; it ain't happening over night; please check the progression of the Rays over the years.

I agree with most here that Riggeleman is a C- manager; won't think outside the box; make too many unnecessary moves too early in the game; stick with under performing veterans at stubborn proportions and fail to evaluate new, younger players even as the season's record is no longer relevant. I don't think that Riggelman has been a significant detriment as far as our record goes but it would be nice to see someone less old school but more fiery than Acta.

BTW; I think that a month of Showalter is a terrible example; in other places he has worn out his welcome after about 2 years and his teams typically win the year after he has left ( they are so relieved to see him go they actually enjoy coming to the park again).

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