- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 17, 2009

PHILADELPHIA | Jim Riggleman doesn’t believe his Washington Nationals are the worst team in baseball. The interim manager, though, knows the standings don’t lie, and his Nationals really aren’t close to any other club.

He also knows performances like the one put forth by Washington during a 6-1 drubbing Wednesday at the hands of the Philadelphia Phillies only foster the negative perception of the franchise around the sport.

Thus, the only way to change that perception is to avoid the countless pratfalls that have been all too evident the past two nights - and, really, throughout a long and painful season.

“I’m just reminding our players that when you make that many mistakes in a ballgame, you are going to allow those things to be said,” Riggleman said after a longer-than-usual team meeting Wednesday night. “And we’ve got to be accountable for that.”

The Nationals were outperformed by the first-place Phillies in any number of departments. Better pitching? Check. Better clutch hitting? Double check. Better baserunning? By a light year.

Is it any wonder Washington languishes at the bottom of the pack while Philadelphia looks primed to make a run at back-to-back World Series titles?

“Right now, the Phillies are a good ballclub, and they’re making everything happen,” reliever Jason Bergmann said. “They’re doing the little things to win ballgames. And unfortunately, we’re getting doubled off [bases] sometimes. We’re out there playing the same game. We just need to do better at the little things.”

Bergmann was among the chief culprits Wednesday, hanging a 1-2 slider to Jayson Werth with the bases loaded in the seventh. Werth’s grand slam turned a tight ballgame into a 6-0 blowout.

But the Nationals (50-95) made far more infractions at the plate and on the bases than on the mound, and those mistakes were at the heart of this loss.

Until posting a late run, Washington had been mired in a 21-inning scoreless streak. Not that there weren’t countless opportunities to snap the streak earlier in the evening. The Nationals put a man in scoring position against starter Joe Blanton in three of the first four innings yet had nothing to show for it, in part because of some flawed fundamentals that led to senseless outs.

With runners on the corners and one out in the second, Livan Hernandez came up to bat. Long considered one of the best-hitting pitchers in the sport, he decided to drop a bunt in front of the plate. Ian Desmond got caught in no man’s land off third base and was gunned down trying to dive back, a golden opportunity wasted.

What happened?

“We wanted Livan swinging the bat there,” Riggleman said.

Added Hernandez: “I was thinking the guy would throw a good pitch, and I don’t got a chance to hit it. So I tried to bunt the ball toward first base and move the runner from first base to second.”

If only Desmond knew in advance what the pitcher planned to do.

“I had no idea,” the rookie infielder said. “We didn’t really talk about it at third base. He did it, and I just kind of got caught in the middle, I guess.”

Desmond was just one of four baserunners to be thrown out in the game. Justin Maxwell was doubled up off first base on a hit-and-run fly ball to shallow right. Pete Orr was thrown out trying to take third on a sacrifice bunt. And Cristian Guzman got doubled up on a line drive caught by first baseman Ryan Howard.

“We’re bunting when we’re not supposed to be bunting,” Riggleman said. “We’re doubled up a couple times. We’re trying to turn a double play we can’t turn - things that we just can’t do. If we’re going to be a better ballclub, we just can’t do those things.”

Barring a dramatic upswing in the season’s final 2 1/2 weeks, coupled with a dramatic collapse by another last-place club, the Nationals will finish with the majors’ worst record for the second straight year. Whether this team believes it deserves the stigma attached to that record, it is there.

There’s nothing Riggleman or his players can do about that aside from producing better results on the field.

“This is a very good team,” Hernandez insisted. “We play hard every day. That’s the more important thing. I know from watching when I played with the Mets. I watched the team, and I know the young guys play hard every day. And that’s more important.”

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