- The Washington Times - Monday, June 1, 2009

PHILADELPHIA | There is unquestionably a difference in talent among the Washington Nationals and the Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets, the two teams that sit atop their division. That more than anything explains why Washington just got swept on a six-game trip to Citi Field and Citizens Bank Park.

There are, however, things the Nationals can do to try to close the gap and give themselves a fighting chance against their toughest opponents. First and foremost: They can start catching and throwing the ball like a real big league club.

“It’s the separator,” catcher Josh Bard said Sunday after a 4-2 loss to the Phillies that gave Jamie Moyer his 250th career win. “They play good defense, and we don’t. And we lose.”

The box score will show that Washington committed no errors during Sunday’s loss, which in some respects should be reason for the majors’ worst defensive team to celebrate. But everyone inside the visiting clubhouse knew better. They knew they could have made three specific plays in the field that, while technically not errors, directly resulted in three runs for the Phillies.

Misplay No. 1: Despite a perfect relay from right fielder Adam Dunn to second baseman Anderson Hernandez to Bard at the plate, the catcher couldn’t hang on to the ball and tag Shane Victorino out in the first inning. Plate umpire Dana DeMuth actually called Victorino out before third-base umpire Brian Knight charged in and overruled because he saw the ball come loose.

“I thought we did a good job on the relay,” Bard said. “Obviously it’s frustrating to not hang on to the ball right there because I think he would have been out. But you’ve just got to put your nose in there and hope it sticks.”

Misplay No. 2: With runners on first and third and one out in the fourth inning, starter John Lannan got Pedro Feliz to hit a routine double-play grounder to short. But Hernandez, while trying to make the turn, couldn’t get the ball out of his glove and never made the throw. Raul Ibanez scored the Phillies’ third run of the game.

“It really hurt,” manager Manny Acta said. “It’s one of those that doesn’t show up in the box score.”

Misplay No. 3: Shortly after the Nationals had cut the lead to 3-2 in the seventh, they gave a run right back to Philadelphia. With two outs and a man on first, Joe Beimel surrendered a long fly ball to Ryan Howard. Austin Kearns, a right fielder forced to play center field the past two days because of a lack of other viable options, got twisted around going back for the ball and couldn’t haul it in, allowing another run to score and Howard to reach third with his ninth career triple.

Put all those together, and is it any wonder the Nationals lost for the 18th time in 21 games?

“If you want to be a good team and you want to win games, you have to do stuff right,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “Turning double plays and things like that, making plays when they’re hit to you. John threw real well today, and it should have been less than what he gave up.”

Criticized all season for their shoddy glove work, the Nationals have tried just about every remedy to solve the problem, and nothing has worked. Acta and his coaching staff work on defensive fundamentals with their players before every game. Sunday morning, the manager decided to put his team on the field 90 minutes before first pitch and have them take a round of old-fashioned infield practice.

It’s a ritual that used to be the norm for every team before every game, but it has all but disappeared from the sport the past two decades. Practically speaking, the 10-minute exercise shouldn’t make much - if any - difference. But perhaps it served a symbolic purpose Sunday, a gentle reminder to Washington’s players that things need to be shored up now.

“We are playing bad defense,” Acta said. “So maybe whatever we’re doing at home is not enough. But I don’t think taking infield on the road here and there is what’s going to fix it.”

Sure enough, the extra morning work did little to alleviate the Nationals’ woes. By the time the Phillies wrapped this one up - with Chase Utley making a nifty play up the middle and Howard making a nice scoop of his throw to retire Bard by half a step - there was little left for the worst team in the major leagues to say.

“The easiest way to get better in a hurry as a team is to just catch the ball,” Bard said. “Myself included. Everybody. We’ve got to play better. We can talk about it till we’re freaking blue in the face. We’re 20 games under .500 or whatever we are. We’ve got to play better.”

• Mark Zuckerman can be reached at mzuckerman@washingtontimes.com.

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