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Poor defense is catching up to the Nationals

Two crucial issues for the Nationals - one present all year, one just surfacing now - converged in the most devastating way and at the cruelest time Thursday. The Nationals have been unable to identify a consistent right fielder this season, and their sloppy defense lately has led directly to losses.

When Lance Berkman smoked a line drive at Cristian Guzman, who was playing the 31st inning of right field in his career, the problems combined to turn an uplifting victory into a demoralizing loss. The Nationals have lost five times in the past six games, and three of those losses came with Matt Capps on the mound with an unearned run scoring.

The Nationals have made 14 errors in their past nine games, in the process taking the league lead in errors with 50. They have allowed 41 runs in those games, and a staggering 17 have been unearned. Guzman's first error of the game, as a shortstop, led to the Astros' first run.

"A week ago, I would have said we played good defense and the errors are misleading," Manager Jim Riggleman said even before the game. "I think the number of errors is still misleading, but we haven't played good defense since that time. I don't know what the explanation is. I know we work hard at it. I don't know if we're not concentrating as much pitch-to-pitch. I don't know what's going on. Our error total has been more reflective in the last week of how we've played. We've got to cut back on that."

At the most pivotal time, their poor defense surfaced again. Guzman could have been replaced by Michael Morse, but Riggleman decided Guzman was faster and had more experience this season, 30 2/3 innings to 20 2/3. With two outs, Berkman scorched a liner to right.

"I knew I hit it well with top spin," Berkman said. "When you have a shortstop playing right field and you have a ball that's coming in with that spin on it, it's a tough play."

Guzman said he lost the ball in the lights. Whatever happened, he botched the play, a play the Nationals desperately needed. It is hard, though, to blame Guzman. If the Nationals had a usual, every day right fielder, he would not have been there in the first place.

Now, it's awfully easy to use this game as an indictment of the Nationals playing this year without a proven right fielder. But one screaming line drive in the ninth inning of Game 56 isn't much of an argument. What is an argument: Nationals right fielders this year, entering Thursday, had hit .198 (last in the majors), slugged .380 (28th) and compiled a .297 on-base percentage (29th). Ironically, they have been dependable defenders. Entering Thursday, they had made two errors while averaging 2.3 chances per nine innings, fifth in the majors.

If the Nationals are going to pull out of their recent slide, they need more production from right field, and they need better defense from every position.

* * *
Here's a bonus thought, from Willie Harris: "I think we have a good team, man. I really do. I've been on championship teams. I've been on losing teams. This team right here is not a losing team. We're not expecting to lose."

By Adam Kilgore  |  June 3, 2010; 8:05 PM ET
Categories:  Cristian Guzman , Matt Capps , right field  | Tags: Cristian Guzman, Houston Astros, Washington Nationals, error, right field  
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Next: Nationals Minor League Report


Fat Matt Capps is not a closer. Drop the "c" and you have it. I'm sure that dumb bass riggleman will trot him out there again. My son could hit that joke and he's only 5.

Posted by: lp_lodestar | June 3, 2010 8:28 PM | Report abuse

The errors will almost always come back to haunt a team, much like intentional walks with less than two outs. I'm trying to figure out whether it's a defensive letdown in the team, or if it was just the "goofy-golf" atmosphere & field conditions in HOU. I mean, seriously - between the Crawford Boxes, Tal's Hill, and the train in the rafters, all they need is a windmill or Clown's head behind 2nd base & the picture is complete.

Posted by: BinM | June 3, 2010 8:31 PM | Report abuse

Pitching means nothing without defense. Batters are supposed to hit the ball and the defense has to make plays. So I'm inclined to cut Capps a good bit of slack. Several of those 17 saves would have been blown had it not been for a stunning catch by Harris or Willingham. Nevertheless, I wonder how shaky Capps' psyche is. Twice he's given up game-tying or game-losing hits after not getting a strike 3 call. And today's implosion came on the heels of an error. These are things he needs to handle.

Posted by: SorenKierkegaard | June 3, 2010 8:38 PM | Report abuse

Adam: In hindsight, the point you overlook is that if Riggleman still had Bernadina in RF, this game had a higher probability as a win. Riggleman just got sub-happy, trying to salvage the series & it bit him on the butt in the 9th. To shift a player (Guzman) who already had 2 errors in the game into another position in a high-leverage situation, was just asking for bad things to happen.

Posted by: BinM | June 3, 2010 8:44 PM | Report abuse

I wonder if we could trade for one of the Xaviers (Nady or Paul) to play right field? Nady should be recovered soon from his TJ surgery last year; Paul played well for the Dodgers during his two callups. Don't know if Paul would be that much of an upgrade, but it would take much with what we've been running out there. Charlie and Dave were wondering if Zimmerman's sidearm throws were due to an injury; is there any kind of injury that would affect throwing but not hitting? I hope his fielding woes are a temporary affliction, and given his history they should be.

Posted by: p-man | June 3, 2010 8:54 PM | Report abuse

@Soren: Something else to consider - Capps' recent slump co-incides with Pudge going on the DL. His problems in 2009 were with less-experienced catchers as well (Robinson & Jaramillo).

Posted by: BinM | June 3, 2010 9:01 PM | Report abuse

My two cents is that Riggleman is asking the impossible of his players. You cannot expect error-less baseball when the defensive lineups change, not only for every game, but, as has been pointed out, frequently within games.

Does anyone think ARod, Jeter, Cano and Teixeira—or any such combination—would be as smooth if they were playing different positions each day and then being substituted for, according to the whims of the manager?

It may be that the team as a whole has simply broken down with all of the arbitrary switches and consequent demands on them to produce at the different positions. Kind of a quiet rebellion underway perhaps.

The one guy who does play the same position day after day, Zimmerman, has found novel ways to make errors. I guess he doesn't want to stand out as the one errorless guy on this constantly shifting roster.

Posted by: JohnRDC | June 3, 2010 9:27 PM | Report abuse

I don't blame Guz at all. The Nats simply forgot about RF during the off-season. You can't remember all the positions! There's so many of them, and they all cost so much to fill. If you get most of them, you can be semi-respectable in MLB.

Posted by: EdDC | June 3, 2010 9:31 PM | Report abuse

Capps is playing like the Caps, start out great and "choking" in the end. At least it is only game 56, so the Nats are in for a "long" up and down ride! Riggleman blew it, why not go with Morse who is listed as a Right Fielder than go with Guzman who is listed as a Shortstop. Now we know why Riggleman is a sub-500 manager.

Posted by: JohnWWW | June 3, 2010 9:45 PM | Report abuse

BinM: Whether i'm beating a dead horse or not releasing Dukes without giving him a fair shot at winning the job in spring training really and truly knaws at me,it was dumb of Rizzo and i know people will say get over it but it was unfair and in hindsight stupid of Rizzo to do that and not have an adequate replacement,but even dumber was Riggs putting Guz in RF in the ninth what in the name of Chuck Hinton was he thinking? especially with Berkman coming to the plate and i'll go back to my earlier post on today's thread why not leave Clippard in he has been very good of late,like i said losing to a better team is understandable but to the Astro's maybe they took this team lightly after monday's rout and they learned a hard lesson these last three games not exactly what you want to do with the Reds comming to town.

Posted by: dargregmag | June 3, 2010 9:46 PM | Report abuse

Is the defense that poor? Some of the metrics say not so much.

Posted by: CharlieF | June 3, 2010 10:08 PM | Report abuse

Just a quick note; MLB FANHOUSE.COM reports that Bryce Harper has been ejected from college game for arguing ball and strikes since it is his second ejection he has been suspended for the remainder of the college playoff games,also got a chance to talk to Delino Deshields son of former Oriole and Expo and no he is not a junior(different middle names)he has a full ride from LSU for baseball but is waiting on the mlb draft next week before he makes his decision(Astro's&Dodgers)have shown serious interest, caught up with him the other night at a impromptu cookout at the home of our daughters boyfriends parents here in the Atlanta area can only hope Rizzo and his staff have this young man on their radar.

Posted by: dargregmag | June 3, 2010 10:32 PM | Report abuse

Guzman found himself in RF because Riggleman put Desmond in at SS. For a number of reasons, this could be seen as a reasonable move: (1) Defensive upgrade at SS (but defensive downgrade in RF) and (2) Hitting upgrade in the line-up (Desmond for Bernadina) with the team trailing. And Guz did provide the go-ahead RBI in the top of the 9th. Morse should have gone into RF in the bottom of the 9th. Career innings mean more than this year's innings in RF.

Posted by: bertbkatz | June 3, 2010 10:32 PM | Report abuse

Compared to where this team was at this time last year, they're doing great. Would definitely like to not see them lose the next 39 games; but, I strongly doubt that will happen. Hang in there! This is not supposed to be the playoff year - that's next year. Keep the faith!

Posted by: prq98 | June 3, 2010 10:33 PM | Report abuse


Thanks for the explanation. Missed most of the game today and have been trying to figure out what happened and why. Agree that Rigs' reasoning was flawed. IMO, this one is primarily on Rigs, not on Guz or Capps.

What in tarnation is going on with Adam Dunn. 0 for 20 with RISP and two outs?Can't blame Rizzo now for not jumping the gun and resigning him in spring training. Did not catch Ray K's commentary today, but seems like Adam is exempt from the searching criticism aimed at other, lesser Nats. Talk about your 800, er, 300 lb. gorilla.

Posted by: CapPeterson1 | June 3, 2010 11:09 PM | Report abuse

bertbkatz, good explanation of what happened, but your analysis seems to lead to somewhat harsher conclusion on Rigs than you draw. It seems like a clear oversight not to put Morse in RF instead of Guzman.

Agree also that there could be some mismanagement longer term because of shifting players to different positions. And finally, GM also at fault for not getting us a single half decent player who can hit AND catch the ball in RF.

Can you have clutch slump? If so, Dunn is in one. He's got good numbers overall, though. Is hitting in the clutch luck or a skill? I don't know. Does anyone?

Posted by: JLNash819 | June 3, 2010 11:18 PM | Report abuse

I'm sure all Gnat fan feel good that Wee Willie Harris thinks this is a good team. Will someone tell Mr. Harris that any team that he holds a roster spot on is NOT a good team?

Posted by: jwing14 | June 4, 2010 12:35 AM | Report abuse

dargregmag: get over it. I was at every home spring training game and half of the away games. Dukes was going through the motions, not running out ground balls and just not hustling. It was obvious to everyone that there was a problem; the local sports reporters even asked if he was hurt. He was the lone exception, everyone else was hustling. The mistake today was another Riggleman mistake; having Guzman in RF in the bottom of the ninth was a little league move. He should concentrate on the on field activities and not worry about the pitch count of a player who is not on the team yet.

Posted by: Phillip258 | June 4, 2010 1:10 AM | Report abuse

jwing14: what are you talking about???? willie harris has played on some bad nats teams, but he played on some pretty good teams in chicago, boston and atlanta. he played in the world series with the white sox. he can play almost every fielding position which makes him a very valuable asset to have on the bench.

Posted by: Phillip258 | June 4, 2010 1:21 AM | Report abuse

Every middle-of-the-road team goes through these tough stretches. They also experience the flipside.

Posted by: richs91 | June 4, 2010 6:30 AM | Report abuse

They also experience the flipside.

Can we (the fans) start experiencing "the flipside" soon? Please?

Two gut wrenching losses (and I have a big gut) like this really hurts.

Posted by: M20832 | June 4, 2010 8:10 AM | Report abuse

Lack of defense and too many strikeouts are catching up with this team. Still encouraged that the team is on the right track but they are frustrating to watch when playing like this.

Posted by: SCNatsFan | June 4, 2010 8:45 AM | Report abuse

Cap, I think the statheads found that clutch hitting is a fallacy. It all evens out eventually.

Posted by: utec | June 4, 2010 8:52 AM | Report abuse

Regarding Zimmerman's sidearm throws: Brooks Robinson and Cal Ripken both did the same thing. With Ripken, it was pronounced. They were Gold-Glovers; Zimmerman is, too.

Posted by: fpcsteve | June 4, 2010 9:04 AM | Report abuse

Just to clarify: yes, Riggleman messed up by leaving Guzman in RF in the bottom of the 9th yesterday. There was another game where he neglected a defensive move and it cost the Nats: Dunn was left at 1B in the 8th inning instead of moving Kennedy there. Dunn booted a ground ball, which cost us that game.
These two instances mystify me, because Riggleman has generally been proactive with defensive moves late in the game.

Posted by: bertbkatz | June 4, 2010 9:28 AM | Report abuse


So you as GM would sign him to long-term contract now while his stock is a bit "down"? That's the question.

I'm not so sure. It is not a fallacy that AD has failed in an astounding 20 of 20 clutch situations this year. What are the odds of that? Undoubtedly, at some point in his life something will change and he will start "hitting in the clutch" again. But he has killed us through the first third--a huge chunk--of the season.
I suspect that part of the reason for his performance is the pressure that's placed on him as "the man" in our lineup. Remember his carefree performance in the 2009 World Classic (or whatever it's called)? No pressure there--he was a star among stars. But expectations are higher for the team--and for him--this year than last, and he seems to be feeling it. Don't know that signing him to a long-term
contract as "the cleanup hitter" would ease the situation.

Posted by: CapPeterson1 | June 4, 2010 9:34 AM | Report abuse

If you really feel that Dunn is part of the long-term plan for the Nats, you'd have him signed by now. I feel that he is not and would really hope he gets traded by the deadline. Nats management needs to keep focused 2-3 years down the road and start accumulating position talent to build for that future.

Posted by: bendersx6 | June 4, 2010 9:41 AM | Report abuse

If i'm Rizzo i've got Adrian Gonzalez(Padres) on my radar for next year he's younger than Dunn and a better clutch hitter and a natural first baseman i don't know what it would take but i'd love to see him in a Nat's uniform next year.

Posted by: dargregmag | June 4, 2010 9:48 AM | Report abuse

Austin Kearns could play right field. Wonder what the Indians would want for him? Perhaps one of the journeyman relief pitchers in the minors? Peralta? MacDougal? Bergmann? Kearns would fit in the clubhouse and it would seem he is healthier this year. Besides, we're already paying his salary....

Posted by: natbiscuits | June 4, 2010 10:10 AM | Report abuse

One big question about Kearns: is he still throwing his bat into the stands? Or has his offseason surgery (correct?) fixed his wrist problem, which could well have been the cause of all his hitting problems. Still don't know though why he waited three years to fix the problem...

Posted by: CapPeterson1 | June 4, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Is the defense that poor? Some of the metrics say not so much.

Posted by: CharlieF | June 3, 2010 10:08 PM | Report abuse
Thanks for the perspective.

Posted by: Vze2sr66 | June 4, 2010 10:36 AM | Report abuse

BinM: Whether i'm beating a dead horse or not releasing Dukes without giving him a fair shot at winning the job in spring training really and truly knaws at me

Posted by: dargregmag | June 3, 2010 9:46 PM | Report abuse

The Nats had all of last season to evaluate Dukes, both on the field and in the club house, so the notion that he didn't get a fair chance just doesn't hold water.

BTW, though I disagree re: Dukes, any poster who invokes Chuck Hinton is OK in my book.

Posted by: rbpalmer | June 4, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

We're on to the next post, where I ran down a convoluted theory that blames the offense for yesterday, not the defense.

But on Dukes, anyone who argues he wasn't given a fair chance is wrong. The argument for keeping him, which I have made, is there wasn't anyone better to put in right field so why not give him more of a chance instead of, say, playing a shortstop there.

Posted by: Section506 | June 4, 2010 10:56 AM | Report abuse

While I agree with the others that this one is on Riggs, I am sick to death of Guzman's lazy play. Whether he was a proven outfielder or not, he is a major league player and was asked only to catch a fly ball that was hit right to him. Not only did he not try to catch it, he stood there and watched it bounce and roll while the center fielder ran over to pick it up.

This team is never going to be good until they get rid of ALL the dead wood, not most of it. Even if he makes $8 mil per year. Eat the contract and get rid of him, play the real 2B (Kennedy), the shortstop that cares (Desmond) and play the real outfieders you have (or get a better one for RF).

Very few games this team has played has made me mad. This is one of them.

Posted by: raymitten | June 4, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

Raymitten is likely right about the roster. While it is improved, there is room for more improvement. If I were a betting man, I'd bet that Guzman will be traded this summer. And putting your best outfield in play for all nine innings makes sense. The RF thing likely won't be straightened out this year. Bernadina is another Ed Sroud, but at least he can field his position. Live with him until or unless someting better outside of the organization becomes available(as opposed to playing Maxwell or Morse). I agree with raymitten on Kennedy. Here is where I disagree: I think the time for giving Desmond a pass on his fielding has come and gone. He should be held to the same standard. The ball Guzman doesn't reach at SS leaves a runner at first. After Desmond reaches a ball and chucks it in the stands, the runner is in scoring position. Which is worse? Maybe in the long run Desmond plays 2B and Espinosa is the SS. Our pitching isn't good enough to withstand the defensive stuff we're doing now that can be changed. Let's try putting Willingham, Morgan, Benadina, Zimmerman, Desmond, Kennedy, and Dunn out there every day and leave them there. Evaluate now. Adjust in the offseason. Aim for more progress next year.

Posted by: fpcsteve | June 4, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

Whoa!! two post that mention Ed Stroud and Chuck Hinton.what's next Don Lock,Bennie Daniels? ok Guzman bashers; he had no business in RF, remember last year late in the season Riggs had Desmond in the outfield, don't blame Guzman he has no business out there under any circumstances that was Riggleman's brain fart and he is not lazy you think Riggs would tolerate that kind of play? I get tired of hearing about the 8 million, hell call Jim Bowden he signed him, everybody's got egg on their face lately as far as errors are concerned hopefully they'll right the ship otherwise, it'll be a long summer.

Posted by: dargregmag | June 4, 2010 12:12 PM | Report abuse

lp_lodestar : Capps has 18 saves, on a team that has won 27 games in the national league this year. How many hits has your son gotten in the national league this year?? probably a big zero. talk about a loser.

Posted by: Phillip258 | June 5, 2010 9:42 AM | Report abuse

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