- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Willie Mays once said that “defense to me is the key to playing baseball.” It figures that the outfielder who made “The Catch” over his shoulder in the 1954 World Series would be partial to fielding.

That iconic Mays moment aside, making routine outs is not as glamorous as smashing home runs or stealing home. But botching some of those outs has cost the Washington Nationals games this season.

“We’ve got to play both sides of the baseball. We really do,” manager Dave Martinez said after Tuesday’s loss to the New York Mets. “Defense is just as important as hitting. It really is.”

It doesn’t have an equal effect on every game — for instance, Patrick Corbin struck out 11 batters in eight innings Wednesday to take care of the Mets and lead Washington to a 5-1 victory.

But when balls are being put in play, one fielding mishap can look a lot worse after the fact.



If the Nationals turned a double play to end the first inning in Tuesday’s loss, it’s possible they would have held the New York Mets to one or two runs for the game. Instead, shortstop Wilmer Difo’s throw to first flew awry and Gerardo Parra’s foot left the bag when he extended to catch it. Robinson Cano was ruled safe for New York, and the Mets soon loaded the bases and hit a grand slam off starter Jeremy Hellickson.

“If he just makes a better throw, Robinson’s out by five feet,” Martinez said, adding it should be a double play ball “10 out of 10 times.”

“I probably rushed it a little too much,” Difo said via team translator Octavio Martinez. “I didn’t realize that the runner’s probably not as fast as I expected him to (be). Tried to rush the play and I had a little bit more time. That’s one of those unfortunate things that sometimes happens.”

It’s not the only time Hellickson has been burned by an early mistake even this month. Anthony Rendon committed an uncharacteristic error in the first inning of Hellickson’s previous start at Milwaukee, and a 1-0 Brewers lead soon grew to 4-0 — just like Tuesday’s game.

The Nationals’ 28 errors through Tuesday are fourth-most in the National League, but defensive mistakes aren’t always counted as errors. Difo’s off-kilter throw wasn’t, since Parra was able to snag it. Instead, Cano’s play was scored as a fielder’s choice, which turned out to be the most pivotal play of the game.

The Nationals seemed to concentrate on fielding when practicing before Wednesday’s game. They got in a pitcher fielding practice (PFP) session that included working on pickoffs; the regularly-scheduled ground ball practice lasted till nearly 45 minutes. A few players in the dugout joked that it was like they were back at spring training.

Martinez said the PFP was previously scheduled, brushing aside the notion that it was a direct result of recent poor performances in the field. In his view, there is a line the team must walk between drilling the fundamentals and not overthinking them.

“We do extra drills. We take ground balls every day,” he said. “It’s just a matter of — sometimes when a team is struggling, you try to do a lot more. Just play the game. Really, all you got to do is play the game. You’ve done it a million times.”

At 16-25 entering Wednesday, the Nationals are not in a position to lose close games, and players know they have to start limiting the mental and physical errors that Washington’s opponents are seizing onto.

“Yeah, it feels that way right now, especially since the team seems to be struggling a little bit,” Difo said. “I think as a team we’re fine, but those errors have been costing us big lately. What we need to just try to do is take a step back, calm down and try to limit those errors that have been hurting us lately and things will turn for us.”

 

 

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