- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 3, 2011

Over the course of the next 159 games, the Nationals may well prove that the defensive team that showed up to play their first two games of the 2011 season is the one they’ll be this year.

But all they proved in Sunday afternoon’s 11-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves, a sloppy, lethargic effort in the series’ rubber match, was that becoming that much-improved club won’t happen without growing pains.

In contrast to their first two games of the season, there was no praise to be showered on the Nationals’ defense Sunday. Gone was the crisp, clean style that had brought such optimism and enthusiasm to the team as the season got under way, even in an Opening Day loss.

It was replaced by relay throws gone awry, double plays that went unturned, and fly balls that appeared catchable falling for extra bases between two outfielders.

That was all before the wheels completely came off in a six-run eighth inning that featured a little of all of it, as well as a balk and a major league debut to forget for reliever Brian Broderick, who was just part of an eight-run bullpen implosion.

“I just think we expect more out of ourselves than we did today,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “It’s not like we didn’t go out there and try - it’s just we need to have a little more, I guess, sense of urgency when we have a chance to win a series.”

“We all know [it’s unacceptable],” he added. “In years past that might not have been the case, but I think this year we realize that we can’t do that in any game [or] you’re going to get … beat.”

The score was 1-1 into the fifth inning Sunday with pitcher Jordan Zimmermann matching Tim Hudson’s productivity almost out for out. Both surrendered a first-inning run before running off a string of outs. Zimmermann set down 10 of the next 11 Braves hitters after allowing an RBI single, the lone exception a harmless walk to Freddie Freeman.

But the defensive miscues piled up in the fifth. A leadoff triple by Alex Gonzalez fell between outfielders Rick Ankiel and Jayson Werth - “Good placement for him, bad placement for us,” Ankiel said.

And a double off the bat of Martin Prado landed much the same way three batters later, scoring Hudson, who’d walked, when second baseman Danny Espinosa bobbled the relay throw from Ankiel.

And that was just a small sampling of the play that continued throughout the afternoon.

“Overall,” Ankiel said, “it’s just a day we want to forget.”

It certainly didn’t help the Nationals’ cause that Hudson, too, settled in, retiring the final 17 batters he faced in holding the Nationals to just three hits and a walk over seven innings. Even when the score was close, Hudson’s efficiency made it seem as if it wasn’t.

“Unfortunately, we’re in the middle of the ballgame, it’s a two-run deficit, and it’s just hard to explain,” said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. “It had the feel of a five- or a six-run deficit when it was a two-run deficit because we just were not playing good baseball.”

“If we had hung in there [when the score was] 3-1 and played clean, I’d be thinking more about how good Hudson was,” he added. “But as bad as we played today, I don’t know that it mattered.”

Todd Coffey, Doug Slaten, Broderick and Chad Gaudin made sure that it didn’t, facing 19 batters and retiring only six of them to expose the Nationals’ bullpen a bit more than it had been in the season’s first two games. Only Drew Storen, who pitched a 1-2-3 ninth, left the game with an untarnished ERA.

“The game just didn’t have the same energy as the last two days,” Riggleman said. “That’s what was disappointing. … I just thought we would have carried a little more fire into this ballgame after [Saturday].”