The first question posed to Davey Martinez following Tuesday night’s 8-2 loss to the Braves was about Paolo Espino, who once again cruised through an opposing lineup for three innings before collapsing once he had to face that lineup a second time.
The Nationals manager immediately pivoted to what he believed was the biggest reason for this loss: His team’s poor play in the field.
“I mean, we gave them six extra outs,” Martinez said. “We played two extra innings on defense.”
To be sure, this was the Nats’ worst defensive game in a while. There was only one official error (on a poor throw by shortstop CJ Abrams) but there were several more substandard moments in the field, from a couple of casual (and thus, late) throws by second baseman Cesar Hernandez and third baseman Ildemaro Vargas, plus a misplayed grounder by Espino that helped keep the top of the fourth alive and ultimately set the stage for Atlanta to score two runs.
It was tough to watch at times, but it was a reminder just how much better the Nationals have been in the field for weeks now.
They’ve been the majors’ worst defensive team all season, but they’ve shown dramatic signs of improvement since reconfiguring their infield with Abrams at shortstop, Vargas taking over at third and Luis Garcia shifting to second base.
On Aug. 15 (the day Abrams made his team debut), the Nats ranked last in the majors with minus-54 Defensive Runs Saved, a full 20 runs worse than the 29th place Giants.
Since then, they’ve played above average defense, checking in at 11 DRS as a team. They still rank last in the majors at minus-43 overall, but they trail the Giants by only three now, so there’s still a realistic chance they escape the basement before season’s end.
“We have been playing pretty sound defense,” catcher Tres Barrera said. “I think we’ve been playing pretty good baseball in general. But that’s baseball. It happens to the best teams in the league every once in a while, and they capitalized on some of those mishaps tonight. But hopefully we’ll come back tomorrow and get right back at it.”
* Among the Nationals’ best defensive players has been Victor Robles, who is playing an elite center field for the first time in several years.
Robles entered Tuesday with 11 DRS, which ranks third among all big league center fielders. Only former teammate Michael A. Taylor (19 DRS with the Royals) and the Astros’ Myles Straw (15 DRS with the Guardians) rate higher.
The Nats have always known Robles can make a difference in the field. They’ve been waiting for him to produce just a bit at the plate and help make his defensive work worthwhile, and there are recent signs of that happening: Robles, who homered during Tuesday’s loss, has 10 hits in his last 12 games, including another homer.
It’s not enough to salvage Robles’ season totals (.226/.278/.307 slash line) but it is some much needed evidence he can still produce with his bat and ensure he stays in the lineup, where he can use his defensive skills to make a larger impact.