VIERA, Fla. - When an opposing baserunner steals against the Nationals, who's at fault?
Sometimes it's the pitcher, who didn't do enough to hold the runner on, disrupt his attempt to swipe a bag or get the ball quickly enough to the plate. Sometimes it's the catcher, who didn't uncork a strong enough throw to nab him. And sometimes no one's at fault - even when you execute properly, the guy trying to steal may execute a little better.
All three situations were apparent to an extent in the Nationals' 2-1 loss Sunday to the Tigers, who stole six bases. Three came against starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann and starting catcher Jose Lobaton in the first two innings. Three came against the battery of reliever Michael Gonzalez and reserve catcher Jhonatan Solano in a span of four at-bats in the eighth, when the Tigers pressed the issue by using some aggressive baserunning to break a tie game.
Nationals manager Matt Williams spoke about the stolen bases after the game, and is probably still pondering them today. He's challenged Nats pitchers to do a better job at holding runners on base this spring, hoping they can use a successful Florida lesson as a springboard into the regular season.
Sunday's game showed that's still very much a work in progress.
In the first inning, Zimmermann got quickly in trouble and fell behind 1-0. Rajai Davis drew a leadoff walk and was breaking for second when Zimmermann hit Ian Kinsler with a pitch. After Victor Martinez fouled out to first base, they executed a double steal to put runners on second and third, and Davis scored on a groundout by Don Kelly.
"We just got to do a better job of keeping an eye on them over there," Zimmermann said. "We've all been working pretty hard on it this spring, varying our looks and holding and stepping off. But ultimately, we've got to give the catcher a good quality throw and something they can handle."
Lobaton is new to the Nationals, and is still in the process of learning the pitching staff. He's not regarded as the strongest arm on the roster, but as a decent defensive backstop for his ability to block balls in the dirt and his knack for framing pitches, an advanced metric at which he excels.
Bench coach Randy Knorr, a former major league catcher, has been working hard with Lobaton on his mechanics and Williams is seeing improvement.
"Randy's been working with him, extra work on delivering the ball to all the bases," Williams said. "He's fine getting the ball down there. The question becomes how are we holding them? We have to give the catchers a chance."
Williams thought Zimmermann did a good job of getting the ball to Lobaton, and that Lobaton uncorked a strong enough throw to make the play for Davis at third a bang-bang call. The manager tipped his cap to the Tigers, who are quickly showing they won't be a one-dimensional power team this year.
"You look at the stolen bases and the top of their order, they're going to do that," Williams said. "They've made it known they're going to do that. That's why they got those two guys - they needed more team speed. ... It's just how they're going to approach the game at the top of their order. Both of them have the ability to steal both second and third. (Zimmermann) wasn't slow to the plate."
In the second inning, Bryan Holaday singled and stole second on a slider that broke down on Lobaton. But since Zimmermann got out of the inning without any further damage, stranding Holaday at second, the stolen base turned out to be pretty inconsequential.
Not so for the flurry of successful steals in the eighth, when Gonzalez's inability to pay attention to the Detroit running game cost the Nats dearly. Ex-National Steve Lombardozzi reached on an infield single and stole second and third before scoring on Danny Worth's double to left. With two down, Worth swiped third and Trevor Crowe walked before Gonzalez worked out of the jam by getting John Murrian to line out.
Asked about Gonzalez's lack of attention to the baserunners, Williams clearly wasn't pleased. He said Gonzalez put Solano at a disadvantage he couldn't overcome.
"That's atypical of the way we want to go about doing it," Williams glared. "He's got to hold baserunners a little bit better than that. Again, we're preaching that in spring training, that we need to do a better job of holding runners. ... "He's been around the block a time or two, and he understands that he's fairly slow to the plate. He needs to vary his times and his looks and throw over. ... And (Sunday) they took advantage of it."
Today's quote of the day, written atop the daily schedule sheet: "There is no substitute for work."