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Four innings into Friday's game against the Orioles, the Nationals were pounding the ball all over Camden Yards. They were pitching well, and Nyjer Morgan, their embattled center fielder, was enjoying his best game of the year, the kind of game that can serve as a milepost when looking back at the end of a turnaround.
Morgan made perhaps the catch of the year in the third inning, scaling the center field wall to take a homer away from Corey Patterson in the third inning. The catch was so athletic, so breathtaking that as the crowd of 43,484 gasped, Patterson could only tip his batting helmet toward center.
It was the last defensive highlight in a game that was defined far more by the Nationals' mistakes than the good things they did. Cristian Guzman and Ian Desmond made two errors apiece, Desmond's pair coming in a three-run Orioles fifth that got Baltimore back in the game. After the Orioles tied the game off Tyler Clippard in the eighth inning, the Nationals had a chance to send it to extra innings in the ninth. But Guzman fired low of first baseman Adam Dunn while trying to turn an inning-ending double play, and Orioles pinch runner Jake Fox as the ball skittered away, turning a game the Nationals lead 6-0 into a 7-6 loss to the Orioles.
Jim Riggleman talks with the media about the Nats' 7-6 walk-off loss to the O's
The four errors raised the Nationals' total to a major-league high 67 this season. And for all the talk about improved fundamentals and increased athleticism on defense this year, the Nationals have the same problem they've had the last two years.
"The way we're playing in general, defensively, is just not good enough," manager Jim Riggleman said. "We do a lot of talking about it, and we're out there working on it. I really can't explain it. I know we put the work in. I feel bad for them. I really feel bad for the players, because I know it's an issue for them. They see the number of errors. They see the game get away from us because we're not making plays."
The Nationals' defense is at its best when it's playing on an edge, taking chances and taking away hits. But when that goes bad, things happen like they did on Friday.
Desmond, who's usually at the center of things when the Nationals save a game on defense, is also often at the center of them when the Nationals lose one. He's as dynamic a shortstop as you'll see in baseball, and on his second error, he made a diving stop to save Nick Markakis' base hit from going to the outfield. But he got up, instinctively firing to second, and yanked his throw wide of Guzman when he saw he didn't have a play on Corey Patterson.
"I already had the play made up in my head what I wanted to do," Desmond said. "I got to the ball, and when I looked up, there was no chance. That's the way it goes sometimes. You play aggressive, those things happen. You've just got to use the brain a little bit more."
Like Morgan and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, Desmond is going to gamble on defense. If you're expecting any of those players to turn into steadier, sturdier defenders, you could be waiting a while. All three, when they're playing well, have ranges that are virtually unmatched around the game.
But there's a difference between aggressive and reckless, and at least with their rookie shortstop, the Nationals know finding the right balance is part of Desmond's learning process.
"He's made plays that no other shortstop is going to make this year, and he's made some errors that no other shortstop is going to make this year," said third-base coach Pat LIstach, who coaches the Nationals' infielders. "We don't want to blame the game on him today, but we've got to be able to win these games and make the plays behind our pitching. We've worked too hard to have this be the result."
Here's where it gets confounding, though: The Nationals already do more fundamental defensive work than just about any team in baseball. They're out working in the infield before almost every game, a practice they started under Riggleman last year. Maybe basics need to be rehashed, but if the Nationals are making errors, it's not for lack of effort.
"Myself and the coaches have got to say, 'What can we do differently?'" Riggleman said. "The work is being put in, and there's a good level of concentration when they're doing it. But something happens in the game. Maybe they're feeling the pressure, I don't know. But the number of errors is not acceptable."
The key, then, is finding a way to retain a defense that can win games with matchless range without letting that turn into costly chance-taking like it did on a couple occasions Friday night.
"We had way too many positive things happen in this game to concentrate on the outcome of the game because we lost the game," Listach said. "Desi stopped a ball that saved a run, but then he threw it away. But just to get to that ball and knock it down is something no other shortstop can do. We've just got to keep playing smarter defense. Not so much better defense, but we've got to play smarter."