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Nationals can hang their hat on improved defense

- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 9, 2011

SAN DIEGO — When the Washington Nationals opened a four-game series with the San Diego Padres on Thursday night, they did so with 100 games left in the season.

At 27-35 and with the worst batting average in the majors, the Nationals can embark on those final 100 games knowing that their defense is the best it's been in at least three years.

For a team that led the league in errors for two straight seasons, the defensive improvement cannot be understated. In their first 62 games, the Nationals made 33 errors — 23 fewer than they did in the same span a year ago.

At the heart of the turnaround stands shortstop Ian Desmond, who's gone from being much-maligned to playing consistent and occasionally spectacular defense.

"I can't tell you how many times Desmond was on the back field at spring training, no one saw him," said bench coach John McLaren. "This guy just worked hard at his game. I've got to hand it to him.

"We're playing as good a defense as you can play. The guy at second base [Danny Espinosa] and [Desmond], their range is just super."

Nine of the Nationals' past 13 games have been decided by two runs or one. Their pitchers have a minuscule margin for error as the offense continues to struggle, and much of their starters' 1.95 ERA in the past nine games can be attributed to the defense.

And while the Nationals' error totals have dropped significantly, Desmond's have all but disappeared. He committed eight errors through May 4 — a number that had many fretting. He has not made an error since.

Other than the Atlanta Braves' Alex Gonzalez, no NL East shortstop has saved more runs above average than Desmond, according to FanGraphs. com.

In fact Desmond, at three runs saved above average, and Gonzalez at nine, are the only ones who qualify positively. Jimmy Rollins, a Gold Glove winner, is last at -11.

Last season, Desmond was a -7 in that category with an Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) of -8.8. This season he's got a UZR of 0.1, a dramatic improvement, and is on pace for 13 fewer errors than he committed in 2010.

"I feel good," Desmond said. "I think we all feel good. It's something we're taking pride in this year, and I think everyone's on the same page. I've been working on everything and it definitely feels good to be out there contributing. It's been my goal this year to just play better defense."

The play at first base has been improved as well with Adam LaRoche taking over for Adam Dunn.

Michael Morse has filled in admirably since LaRoche went on the disabled list, playing errorless defense in 18 games, and Espinosa has displayed phenomenal range at second base. Even Jerry Hairston Jr., the Nationals' primary replacement for Ryan Zimmerman, has made just seven errors at third base.

"The defense is hands-down better than last year," said right-hander Jordan Zimmermann. "You feel like you can make [the opposition] put the ball in play, and you're confident they're going to make a play behind you every time."

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