Nationals’ problem stopping running game has resurfaced

There was a time, before July 30, when the Nationals were among the toughest teams in baseball to run on. With Yan Gomes and Alex Avila behind the plate, the Nats excelled at controlling the running game, fixing what had been a major problem area for the team the previous two seasons.

Alas, Gomes is now catching in Oakland. Avila only recently returned to the active roster after a long stint on the injured list. And the club’s new, young catchers haven’t enjoyed anywhere close to the success their veteran predecessors did.

Gomes and Avila combined allowed only 38 of 60 opposing runners to steal off them this season, an impressive 63.3 percent rate. But the five other catchers the Nationals have employed in 2021 have allowed 46 of 54 to steal off them, a cringe-worthy 85.2 percent rate.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed by the coaching staff.

“This is stuff that we constantly work on, we constantly talk about with them,” manager Davey Martinez said in a Zoom session with reporters Tuesday. “And we’ve definitely got to get better at it.”

The Nationals’ current rookie catching tandem has really struggled since taking over. Opponents are 5-for-6 stealing off Keibert Ruiz, 15-for-17 off Riley Adams. Add in the 19 stolen bases Tres Barrera allowed in 20 attempts before his demotion to Triple-A Rochester and you see a disturbing trend take shape.

Thing is, it’s not entirely on the catchers. In fact, Martinez places far more blame on his pitching staff for the high stolen base numbers.

“You know, our pitching staff has changed quite a bit,” the manager said. “We’re talking to these guys about being a lot quicker, especially with the guys we know can run. Pay a little more attention to them. Change their looks, change their times, hold the ball a little bit more. It’s all been addressed. But once some of these guys get on the mound, they’re really focused on the hitter, and they just want to get that hitter out. We definitely have to do a better job, especially in these closer games, not giving up an extra base.”

It came back to bite the Nationals during Monday night’s 8-7 loss to the Marlins, when they let Jazz Chisholm Jr. steal third base in the bottom of the 10th, putting himself in position to score the winning run on Sam Clay’s subsequent wild pitch.

The issue, as Martinez sees it, begins with pitchers’ tendencies to fall into bad (and predictable) habits when on the mound with runners on base.

“We’ve got to get out of patterns,” he said. “A lot of times I’ll sit there and I’ll watch our pitchers come in, and I can sit there and count: ‘One thousand one, one thousand two, home.’ Next pitch: ‘One thousand one, one thousand two, home.’ They’ve got to try to stay out of those patterns like that and be a lot quicker.”

Thumbnail image for Clay-Throws-Gray-Sidebar.jpgIt gets more complicated late in close ballgames, with relievers needing to strike a balance between devoting attention to baserunners and devoting attention to the hitter standing at the plate.

“This is talked about before the game: Which guys can run, which guys do we have to pay attention to?” Martinez said. “But when (pitchers) come in the game, it’s hard to emphasize. We’ll throw over as many times as we can, but you want guys to focus on the hitter. I don’t want them to focus on the baserunner, because that’s when you start making mistakes.”

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