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Fielding experiment goes awry in defeat

- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 20, 2009

NEW YORK | The Washington Nationals are playing games now that count only in number, not in the overall effect they'll have on a season that was lost long ago.

So there was little harm in interim manager Jim Riggleman trotting out a borderline experimental lineup for Saturday's 3-2 loss to the New York Mets. The objective behind putting shortstop Ian Desmond in right field was to get the 24-year-old some experience at a new position while freeing up at-bats for the Nationals' other middle infielders, and Riggleman knew he was taking a chance that could backfire.

When it did, the only damage done was another loss mounted on an already hefty pile.

Desmond's misplay of a David Wright double in the seventh inning loomed large in the defeat, as did Adam Dunn's error at first base later in the inning.

But there was little reason to fret about it afterward, not when the only thing at stake was the Nationals leaving Citi Field at 52-96 instead of 51-97. A chance was taken; it didn't work. Maybe the next one will.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

"It was a tough play," Riggleman said. "We're putting him out there. The ball may find him in a tough situation, and it did. Ian made a great effort on the ball and just didn't come up with it."

Riggleman said he was planning to move Desmond back to short for the seventh inning had the Nationals taken the lead in the top of the inning instead of merely tying the score at 1-1. He left Desmond in right, not wanting to move Cristian Guzman to second and take Pete Orr's left-handed bat out of the lineup. But the strategy didn't work when Desmond froze on Wright's liner, backtracking and leaping too late to catch it. Wright scored on Jeff Francoeur's double.

"I don't regret putting him out there," Riggleman said. "If I had to do it over again, I might not send him out there in a tie game. I didn't make that move there, and it backfired."

If there was a victim in the loss, it was John Lannan, who remained stuck on nine wins despite allowing three runs in seven innings, his third strong outing against the Mets this year. He threw just 74 pitches, commanding all of his pitches and showing again he can stop New York when his fastball is sharp.

But former teammate Tim Redding, who was 10-11 for the Nationals last year and had a handful of wins killed by a lack of run support, beat Lannan in the kind of game he often faced with the Nationals last season.

Redding was perfect through the first three innings and allowed only an infield single and a walk through six innings. The 31-year-old, nearly released by the Mets earlier this year, looked like a remade version of the pitcher who thrust his name into the All-Star conversation last spring, changing speeds on a sharp fastball that ranged from the mid-80s to low-90s and made his off-speed pitches effective most of the afternoon.

"He wasn't missing over the plate very much," Dunn said. "He normally gives you something over the plate to hit. If he did, we didn't take advantage of it. He mixed his pitches up pretty good. That's as good as I've seen him."

He gave up just two runs, only one of which was earned. The second one, in the eighth inning, came after Redding allowed a leadoff double to Josh Bard and reliever Sean Green's error kept the Nationals alive.

Guzman tapped a two-out grounder back to Green, who had an easy play at first. Only he didn't make it. He spun and threw the ball away from Daniel Murphy at first base, allowing pinch runner Jorge Padilla to score and advancing Guzman to second.

But after Guzman advanced to third on Ryan Zimmerman's single, Dunn couldn't drive him in, and the Nationals went down in order against Francisco Rodriguez in the ninth.

Afterward, the Nationals' explanations for the fielding miscues were succinct and direct: Desmond said he froze when the line drive was hit right at him, Dunn said he glanced over to see if Francoeur was running from third, took his eye off the grounder and "just booted it." Lannan, while acknowledging Desmond's ball should've been caught, didn't point any fingers.

"That ball's tough. It's his first time out there," Lannan said. "You need to get his bat in the lineup. He's swinging a hot bat. That's how the game goes sometimes."

When it's just about numbers at this point, there's not much else to say.