Something has got to change.
If the Nationals have any aspirations of winning the National League East or making an appearance in the postseason, they must play better defense.
That means cleaner innings. That means making the play you are supposed to make and not trying to do too much.
Shortstop Ian Desmond has had too many errors to begin this season. He would be the first to admit that. But he has also said a few times after games when he had committed an on-field miscue that maybe next time he should just “eat the ball.”
Not forcing a throw and conceding a baserunner at first is a lot better than allowing multiple runs to score because your throw airmails first base.
So the Nationals’ starting infielders took it upon themselves Wednesday before their game against the Angels to take extended early infield practice.
Manager Matt Williams said the players came to him to say they wanted to practice more on defense and that it wasn’t him demanding they get the extra work in. That impressed the skipper.
“I’ll have to preface by saying that this is not my idea, this is their idea,” Williams said. “So get that out of the way first. They want it. They have come to us and said, ‘Let’s do some more,’ and that is a good thing.
“Ian came out today, Anthony (Rendon) came out today, Danny (Espinosa) came out today. That is their decision. They are playing every day so we are not expecting them to do extra, extra. But they came out on their own free will today, which is good. It shows me something. They care about it.”
Williams said that on a normal schedule, Wednesday’s early pregame would be reserved for bench players to get their chance to practice ground balls and double-play throws.
“It is generally scheduled for the extra guys,” Williams said. “So the guys that are not playing on a regular basis, we do that. But it is certainly free for anybody to come out.
“They don’t want to make an error. Nobody wants to make an error. Nobody wants to strike out. Nobody wants to give up a homer. So they are working hard at it.”
Williams knows that extra infield work is important. Practicing your glovework and defense is crucial, but in a long season, when do you get to do this extra work?
This is baseball, not football. You don’t have seven days to fix an issue after a loss. Baseball, you play every day. You have to fix problems on the fly. One way to possibly diminish sloppy play is to practice more before each game.
“I think it is a question of making sure we continue to do it,” Williams said. “It is nothing new. It is not for any other reason than that is what we do. We do that. Generally, it is the extra guys because during batting practice itself, it is difficult for everybody to get grounders, balls flying all over the place. That is all it is for, really.
“What do we want to see them do? Well, we want them to play clean games. They want that to, so we continue to work at it.”
To be a successful manager, it has to be a good mix of teacher, leader, coach and sometimes psychologist. Williams said he also has to monitor his players to make sure they don’t get too down on themselves for all these early mistakes in the field.
“It is difficult, it is difficult when you are not playing as well as you want to play,” Williams said. “Everybody is human, everybody has emotion and everybody should have emotion and play with emotion.
“Does it bother Desi when he makes an error? Of course. It would bother me, it would bother you. And the fact that those types of things have led to big innings makes it even worse. So I am concerned about the guys and how they feel. My job is to make sure to let them know that I am OK with them.
“They are working hard, they are doing what they are supposed to do,” Williams continued. “We will get to the point where we are playing well and continue to voice my opinion that this is not the norm, this is a stretch. We will get through it and assure them that we will.”
Williams said part of the difficulty in the errors is that they are not just because of an obvious mechanical issue or a mental lapse in the game. There is not one single clear-cut reason why the team has made 23 errors in 21 games.
“I can’t tell you a reason for it. That is baffling,” Williams said. “There is no real reason that I can see. Because everything is the same as it has been. They work hard. Nobody is sitting around doing nothing. That is why I think that it will turn and we will do everything we can to make it turn.”
But the bottom line for Williams is he thinks this collection of Nationals has underperformed in the first part of the season, especially on defense.
“I do believe that this is not the norm,” Williams said. “I think we will see that. But there is only one way to get out of something that you are in, if you are in a slump, you hit. If we are not playing clean, then we work at it. It is just the way baseball is, it is what you have to do.”
Williams believes this Nationals team is better than what they have shown in April. He said there have been some big wins, but also some disappointing moments.
“I don’t think we have played well yet, that is what I see,” Williams said. “There has been spots of good, there has been spots of great, we have seen big comebacks and things like that. But over the course of a number of games, I don’t think we have put it together yet. I do believe we will. But as of right now, that just has not happened yet. We continue to work hard to get to that point.”