October 25, 2014

OPINION: Lack of focus hinders Washington Nationals out of the gate

The Washington Nationals, predicted juggernauts of the National League, find themselves with a 10-8 record, 3 1/2 games behind their chief competition in the division, the Atlanta Braves, three weeks into the season. It’s not so much the record, per se, but how they’ve gotten there that has folks concerned.

The offense has been sporadic, relying mainly on home runs to score. The starting pitching has been erratic; the bullpen a crapshoot. And the defense, which was supposed to be their strongest suit, has been downright poor, with 18 errors in 18 games, including three more in Sunday’s loss to the New York Mets.

What’s worse, they are making errors in judgment in addition to the physical errors, compounding the effects of the miscues with mental mistakes.

Sunday, the Nats made three glaring mental errors: one on the base paths, one in the field, and one at the plate that all combined to help hand the Nats a 2-0 loss when they struggled to get anything going against a pitcher that came into the game with an ERA over eight in three starts.

Already trailing 2-0 in the top of the sixth, Denard Span walked against Mets starter Dillon Gee on four pitches. Gee was running out of gas and it was going to be the Nats chance to get to him before getting to feast on the Mets ragged bullpen. On an 0-1 pitch, Gee threw a fastball in the dirt that looked like it might get past catcher John Buck, so with a walking lead Span took off for second.

Buck made a nice backhand pick of the ball in the dirt though, rose and fired a strike to Ruben Tejada covering the bag to nail Span easily. Down two runs there with the leadoff runner on, Span had to make sure that ball got through or away from the catcher. It was a play of aggression that you can live with if you’re playing good baseball, but when a team is struggling it’s a case of a player trying to do too much on his own.

Take what they give you, but make 100 percent sure you’re going to be safe.

Two pitches later, there were two outs. Gee walked the next two batters and was chased from the game. Unfortunately, the Nats chance at a rally fizzled when veteran reliever LaTroy Hawkins struck out Ian Desmond — looking.

In the bottom half of the frame, Mike Baxter singled cleanly on one hop to left fielder Bryce Harper. The 20-year-old, maybe for the first time in his career, half-heartedly chased the ball down and had it hop out of his glove. Harper looked less than interested in collecting the ball, so Baxter — running all the way — hustled into second base. Baxter did not score, but the play made Harper — and in turn, the Nats — look bad.

The killer, though, came in the eighth inning.  Against 30-year-old rookie left-handed reliever Scott Rice, Steve Lombardozzi led off with a single. Span drew a five-pitch walk, with Rice throwing the last three balls in the dirt, nowhere near strikes. A visit by pitching coach Dan Warthen didn’t help, as Rice threw three straight upper-80s sinkers in the dirt to Jayson Werth to go 3-0.

Inexplicably, Werth committed a batting Cardinal sin as he swung at the 3-0 pitch against a pitcher that couldn’t find the strike zone with a map, tapping the 88-MPH sinker to short for an easy 6-4-3 double play. It’s not so much swinging 3-0 there, but there was nothing he could do with the pitch at his shoetops but hit the ball weakly on the ground. Again, it a case of one player taking it upon himself instead of taking what a mediocre team will give you.

After the game, manager Davey Johnson declined to discuss Werth’s decision to swing. For his part, Werth owned up to it, admitting on the postgame that it was a bad decision. “Look no further than me,” Werth said. “I feel like I pretty much blew it.”

Harper then struck out, seeing nothing but sliders and changeups, all but one outside the strike zone.

Expectations do funny things to a ball club. Of course, it’s early. The physical errors will probably take care of themselves — Ian Desmond probably isn’t going to continue to make an error every other game for the rest of the year. Once the physical errors are reduced — and the team starts to hit — the mental errors will probably go with them.

But the lack of focus right now while the team is scuffling a bit hurts even worse, because even though the Nats aren’t playing all that well right now, these are still ballgames they could — should — be winning. Sunday’s game was eminently winnable, right down to the last batters.

Complicating poor play with a lack of focus from what’s supposed to be a team with a “World Series or Bust” mentality is troubling. The Nats have little time to dwell though, as they must regroup quickly for home series with St. Louis and Cincinnati this week. A disappointing start can turn into a downright bad start very quickly this week if the Nats don’t start paying attention to the details.

Breaking out the bats wouldn’t hurt, either.

About Dave Nichols

Dave Nichols is Editor-in-Chief of District Sports Page. He is credentialed to cover the Washington Nationals, Capitals, Wizards and Mystics. Dave also covers national college football and basketball and Major League Soccer for Associated Press. He spent four years in radio covering the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Redskins and the University of Maryland football and basketball teams. Dave is a life-long D.C. sports fan and attended his first pro game in 1974 — the Caps’ second game in existence. You can follow him on Twitter @DaveNicholsDSP

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