- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2015


Matt Williams has several books on the shelves of his managers office at Nationals Park.

One of them is mine — “The Quotable Coach.”

When he gets back to Washington, he might want to consult it — for comfort, if not for advice, perhaps from the great Casey Stengel, who won and who lost in his Hall of Fame managing career.

“Most ball games are lost, not won.”

“Been in this game 100 years, but I see new ways to lose ‘em I never knew existed before.”

“Don’t cut my throat — I may want to do that later myself.”

The Washington Nationals are finding new ways to lose, and hiding the sharp objects may be a good idea.

The 1927 New York Yankees were the comparable role model for the 2015 Nationals before the season started — one of the all-time great teams before they played a regular-season game.

Instead, they’ve looked more like the 1962 New York Mets ­— the team that caused Casey to once ask, “Can’t anybody here play this game?”

Lofty expectations were reasonable for these Nationals, based on their track record of 96 wins last year, a National League East division title, and the addition of ace pitcher Max Scherzer to the best pitching staff in baseball last season.

Those expectations have taken a hit ­— or in this case, an error — at the start of the season. The Nationals’ pattern of defensive breakdowns continued in Monday’s 9-4 loss to the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park as balls fell in between confused outfielders — and, of course, there was an obligatory error by shortstop Ian Desmond.

Those expectations seem hollow in the face of the bad start, the mishaps on the field and the lack of offense at the plate, the worst in all of baseball.

This team, though, will hit. When Denard Span and Anthony Rendon join Jayson Werth in the lineup after starting the season on the disabled list, it will be the same offense that was ranked No. 5 in all of baseball last season, according to FanGraphs. And the starting pitching has been as good as advertised. The bullpen is not a strength and remains a work in progress.

The defense, though? That could be a problem. That is a concern that could be season-long.

It was the defense that sunks the Nationals in their 2013 season, burying them early.

After two months into the 2013 season, Washington had 41 errors, the second-highest in the game. They finished the season with 107, which was 23rd in the majors.

While their offense struggled as well early — batting .229, ranked 27th after two months of the 2013 season, and with a dead-last on-base percentage of .287 — they managed to hit their way back to respectability over the rest of the year and finish 15th, right in the middle of the pack, with a .251 batting average. And the pitching, while not the best, was certainly playoff caliber, finishing eighth in the majors.

But they never recovered from giving away runs, and it was those errors that proved to be the difference between a playoff wild card and exiled from the postseason. They still managed to win 86 games, finishing four games out of the wild card race.

They won 86 games because the players, over the course of a season, performed for the most part, according to their track record. So did the pitching, though there was less of a track record to go on because it was a young staff.

Defense, though, can be as unpredictable as Desmond’s perennial April woes on the field.

The safety net for a team with great pitching and streaky, sometimes struggling offense is the defense.

“How bad was this game? About as bad as you can get,” Williams told reporters after Monday’s loss to Boston. “It’s tough to win ballgames when you can’t catch the baseball. It’s got to get better than that.”

The other safety net this season for Washington may be the state of the NL East. An 88-win season might capture the division this year.

Of course, the Nationals would have to win 88 games first.

“These are big league baseball players,” Williams said. “They’re here because they can catch the baseball. It’s not too much emphasis. Any time you go out there against a club like this and you don’t catch fly balls they are going to kick your fanny. So we’ve got to do a better job than we did today if we want to win games.”

Or, maybe, as Casey once said, “If we’re going to win the pennant, we’ve got to start thinking we’re not as good as we think we are.”

• Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.

• Thom Loverro can be reached at tloverro@washingtontimes.com.

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