- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 16, 2011

ATLANTA — Ryan Zimmerman looked up at the sky, then down at his feet. He kicked some of the infield dirt around his post at third base. A sixth-inning grounder he’d lined up had just inexplicably gone through his legs. In truth, it was just the tip of the iceberg for the Washington Nationals.

In their first game back from the All-Star break, the Nationals looked nothing like the team that raised its fielding percentage to .985 in the first half — tied for the third highest in the National League. Nor did they look like the one that reeled off a franchise record for consecutive errorless innings in early June.

Washington struggled to adjust to the infield at Turner Field, resulting in sloppy play that produced five errors and their pitching got hit hard. In falling 11-1 to the Atlanta Braves Friday night, the Nationals opened the second half with their most lopsided loss of the season and handed the Braves their franchise’s 10,000th victory, the third franchise in major league history to reach that milestone. 

“Those were tough errors,” said Nationals manager Davey Johnson. “Balls were hit hard, short-hopped guys, came up and hit them in the chest, the ball to [Zimmerman] was smoked and took a quick hop at the end. When the balls are hit that hard, tough hops, it’s a tough error.

“Some of the best gloves in baseball get tough errors on things like that. They expect you to make them.”

Zimmerman’s misplayed grounder was one of the less costly infractions for the Nationals as it only led to one run. Across the diamond, the normally surehanded Michael Morse — who earlier this season committed his first error since 2005 — was tagged with three, two in the first inning alone. Ian Desmond also added one on a hard-hit grounder by catcher David Ross.  And while Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos weren’t formally charged with any, they came very close.

According to STATS, Inc., the Nats became the first team since the 2007 Marlins to commit at least five errors in two different games in a season, a dubious distinction. Washington also committed five errors in Johnson’s second game at the helm June 28 in an 11-5 loss to Anaheim.

While plenty of Nationals expressed frustration with the way the field played, they acknowledged the fact that the Braves played on the same field and had no errors. They also managed 13 hits, five for extra bases.

“The surface out there, it’s a little tough,” Zimmerman said. “I’ll be the first one to admit when I make an error, when I mess up. But to have a ball lined up and then have it go completely to the other side of your body between your legs, I mean, you’ve just got to get into defense mode and try to block everything.

“When it comes down to it, we can’t make excuses. They have to play on the field, too. It is what it is.”

The night looked promising for the Nationals, as they jumped on Tim Hudson for a run in the first inning and had the first three batters reach base. They also put at least two runners on in each of the first three innings.

But from the third to the seventh, Hudson set down 12 straight batters and retired 14 of the final 16 hitters he faced. When it was over, he’d thrown seven innings, allowed seven hits and struck out seven, dropping his career ERA against Washington to 1.97 and improving his record to 12-3 against them.

“We were ahead 1-0 after our first half of the first against a guy like that who has historically dominated our team,” Zimmerman said, refuting the idea that the Nationals were rusty. “We put some good at-bats on him. I don’t think we came out flat.”

“I don’t think anybody did anything differently,” Desmond said. “By no means was anyone scared of the ball. It’s just the way the ball bounces sometimes.”

But with the Nationals errors piling up and Livan Hernandez getting hit hard for six runs, three earned, in four innings of work, the Nationals one-run first seemed like a distant memory by the time they came to bat in the second. With four runs already home, the Braves would continue to pile on, tallying one more in each of the third and fourth, three in the sixth off Ross Detwiler and two more against Todd Coffey in the seventh. Seven of the Braves’ 11 runs were earned.

“We didn’t play too good, we didn’t pitch too good,” Johnson said. “You’ve got a lead and you want to play good to protect the lead. [The three errors in the first inning] probably unnerved the starting pitcher a little bit but he didn’t pick us up and make good pitches.

“They were all physical errors and I don’t worry about those things. Those things can happen. We’ve been outstanding defensively all year. This was just one of those games.”

• Amanda Comak can be reached at acomak@washingtontimes.com.

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