After loss to Braves, Nationals want to squelch effort problems early

Generally speaking, it’s never a good sign when a baseball team is questioning its own effort level three games into a season - unless, possibly, it’s being done in the spirit of preventative maintenance.

Is it bad that, after a spring of talking about a new mentality and commitment to hustle, the Nationals looked listless in an 11-2 loss to the Braves on the season’s first weekend? Or is it an encouraging sign that Ryan Zimmerman was standing at his locker on Sunday afternoon, talking already about the consequences of a poor effort?

We won’t have an answer to that question today, but after the Nationals played two crisp games to start the year, Sunday’s effort didn’t match up.

Jim Riggleman talks with the media after the Nats’ 11-2 loss to the Braves

They were tied with last year’s wild-card winner through four innings, until a defense that looked ragged in the first inning came undone. The Nationals’ bullpen got torched for eight runs in the final three innings of the game, and Washington managed just four hits, including three off Tim Hudson. And as they head south, back to Florida for the first road series of the year, the Nationals were already in introspection mode - maybe too early, or maybe at just the right time.

“It’s one game. There’s no reason to overreact,” Zimmerman said. “The first two games of this year, we played very well. I just think we expect more out of ourselves than we did today. It’s not like we didn’t go out there and try. It’s just, we need to have a little bit more, I guess, sense of urgency when we have a chance to win a series.”

Zimmerman was careful, though, to explain his motives for saying what he said: It wasn’t because he knew few players around him would respond to a shot across the bow, as might have been the case in previous years. It was because the Nationals now have veterans who feel the same way - and his words may have been a subtle reminder to them to help him keep standards high.

Manager Jim Riggleman, who has typically addressed the Nationals after games and traditionally would have on a day like this in the past, wants to pass off more of the clubhouse discipline to his veterans this year. He met with Zimmerman, Jayson Werth and Ian Desmond, among others, in spring training to stress the importance of players policing themselves, and reliever Sean Burnett said last week he’s already seen players pull others aside to lay down the law about clubhouse standards.

What Zimmerman said on Sunday was just an extension of that.

“That’s the good thing about this club, that nobody has to (draw a line in the sand). We all know,” Zimmerman said. “In years past, I think that might not have been the case. But this year, I think we realize we can’t do that in any game, or you’re going to get your ass beat.”

Many of the miscues centered around new additions the Nationals are counting on to fortify their defense. Danny Espinosa knocked down Martin Prado’s hit at the beginning of the game, but couldn’t come up with it, and later bobbled a grounder that cost him a shot at a double play to end the first inning. In the fifth, Jayson Werth and Rick Ankiel seemed to get mixed up on Alex Gonzalez’s drive to the wall in right center; the ball got just beyond Werth’s glove, and both players deferred to one another on who was going to throw it to the infield.

When Werth fired toward the infield, Espinosa cut it off and made a wild relay throw over Zimmerman’s head. Had Jordan Zimmermann not backed up the play, Gonzalez would have scored.

Four batters later, Prado hit a drive to the wall between Ankiel and Werth, who both had to backtrack after playing the left fielder somewhat shallow. Ankiel threw low toward Espinosa, and as the ball got away from him, the Braves sent Hudson from third, where he’d originally been stopped. The Nationals’ first error of the year gave the Braves their third run of the game.

“I thought I could pick that ball. I probably should have let it go,” Espinosa said. “Those are my mistakes that I understand I made, and they’ll get fixed.”

Mistakes will happen, but effort level is something deeper and tougher to judge.

“I think the effort was there,” manager Jim Riggleman said. “Concentration, you’re not in somebody’s head. The players can only answer for their concentration level. I thought the energy was there - guys were running balls out, they were saying the right things in the dugout and stuff. I just would have thought we would have carried a little more fire into this ballgame after yesterday.”

How they come out of it will be an important early test for the Nationals. They beat the Marlins just five times in 18 games last year, and are 14-39 against Florida the last three years. If they want to carry the theme of some fresh start forward, it’d help them to play well against a team that’s beaten them badly in recent years.

And to do that, they’ll have to quickly divorce themselves from a haggard effort on Sunday. The Nationals had eight losing streaks of four games or longer last year. It’s worth noting that the first one started on May 15, the day after they reached their high-water mark of 20-15. Good teams mostly get to the top of their divisions by nipping problems in the bud; simply going 5-4 every three series will get you to 90 wins.

Maybe it’s too early to call Zimmerman’s words a message to the rest of the clubhouse. On the other hand, maybe it’s exactly the right time to send such a message if the Nationals truly want to do something different this year.

“(There were) little things during the game that you guys saw, that I’m sure everyone saw,” Zimmerman said. “If we want to be a winning team, that stuff can’t happen.”