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Defending the defensive plan

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Can we clear something up about the Nationals’ woeful defense and the idea that seems to be prevailing among fans (and some members of the media) that this team doesn’t practice defense enough?

The Nats don’t have the majors’ worst defense because they aren’t working hard enough. They have the majors’ worst defense because they have bad defensive players.

That may not be an acceptable answer to irate fans and TV analysts who seem to think that this team doesn’t ever work on defense and that all their problems would be solved if only they took more grounders. But it’s the truth, and I think everyone needs to be aware just how much the Nationals do work on defense.

I’m at the ballpark almost every day by 3 p.m. I see what these guys do on a daily basis. Their DAILY regimen includes:

— Team defensive and fundamental drills. Before just about every home game, the Nats take the field prior to batting practice and run through either a standard “infield” practice or more detailed, specific fundamental defensive drills. This can include pitcher’s fielding practice, situational defense, pickoff plays, cut-off and relay plays, you name it. They don’t do this regularly on the road, but that is a product more of the time constraints placed on the visiting team during BP. Every team faces the same constraints, and every team has very similar pregame defensive routines.

— Individual defensive drills. As batting practice is taking place, EVERY infielder is paired up with a coach who hits a minimum of 50 groundballs each player’s way. They hit routine grounders. They hit balls to the player’s left. They hit balls to the player’s right. The players make throws to first base. They practice turning double plays. This happens before EVERY GAME. Meanwhile, the outfielders take a steady stream of fly balls in a group from first base coach Marquis Grissom (who doubles as the outfield coach). At most home games, roving outfielder instructor Devon White has also been there working with players. Outfielders also shag fly balls hit during BP, working on their routes, judging how the balls are coming off the bat and (on the road) how the opposing team’s field plays. Again this takes place EVERY DAY.

Now, a word about that time-honored practice known simply as “infield.” A lot of people have been complaining that the Nats don’t take “infield” on a daily basis. Well, here’s what “infield” consists of: The eight starting position players take their spots in the field. Third base coach Pat Listach hits four groundballs to each outfielder, who in succession throws the ball to 1) second base, 2) third base, 3) a cutoff man, 4) home plate. Then Listach hits four groundballs to each infielder, who in succession throws the ball to 1) first base, 2) second base, 3) home plate, 4) charges in on a slow roller and throws to first base.

That’s what “infield” is. That’s the way it’s always been. That’s the way every team does it, when they actually do it. (And note that hardly anyone does it anymore on a regular basis, both because of time constraints and because it really doesn’t add much to all the other defensive work a team does before and during BP.)

Look, the Nationals work on defense just as much (if not more) than every major league club. That’s not the reason they’ve committed 48 errors this season and countless other mistakes in the field. The reason the Nationals have the majors’ worst defense is that they have bad defensive players.

Adam Dunn is, at best, one of the worst left fielders in the game. And he’s been forced to play right field (a tougher position) on a semi-regular basis and first base a few times when Nick Johnson needs a breather.

Josh Willingham is a below-average left fielder who has trouble reading line drives off the bat and often can’t recover in time.

Anderson Hernandez is a talented second baseman prone to mental lapses. He’ll make some really nice plays on tough balls, but he gets lazy on routine ones.

Cristian Guzman is an adequate shortstop who pretty much handles most routine plays but doesn’t often go deep in the hole or up the middle to make the kind of plays that leave you saying: “Wow!”

And don’t forget that the Nationals do not have a single natural center fielder on their roster. Elijah Dukes is a right fielder. Austin Kearns is a right fielder. Lastings Milledge is a left fielder. Willie Harris is a utilityman. Justin Maxwell and Roger Bernadina are the only real center fielders in the organization, and Maxwell can’t hit big league pitching yet and Bernadina has a broken ankle.

There is perhaps nothing more frustrating to managers, coaches, players, media members and fans than bad defense. But don’t blame the Nationals for not trying. If anything, blame them for assembling a seriously flawed roster that did not take into account how important defense is.

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Mark Zuckerman

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