Of the eleven groundouts that Chien-Ming Wang induced on Tuesday night in earning his first win since 2009, six of them were sent out to short where Ian Desmond handled them with relative ease, turning one double play and ranging around the left side of the infield to cut off any grounder Ryan Zimmerman didn't intercept on its way toward the hole.
One play in particular, on a grounder by Cubs' outfielder Tyler Colvin in the fifth that went past Wang on the mound and up the middle over second to where Desmond fielded it in short center before unloading a strong throw, caught Nats' Skipper Davey Johnson's attention as he mentioned when asked about the Nats' improved defense and how easy the left side of the infield had made things look throughout the series opener in Chicago.
"They've been doing that all year long," Johnson said, "the defense has been outstanding and the offense is coming along with it."
"But the one play that Desi made," the Nats' Skipper continued, "I mean that was a ball up the middle, took a bad hop and he still made the play. That was outstanding." After earning his first major league win on Tuesday night, Nats' sinker baller Chien-Ming Wang told MASNSports.com's Debbi Taylor having confidence in his defense played an important role. "I've got a good infield and they caught a lot of ground balls for me, and today, the sinker was down better." Eleven groundouts later, and after solid work by the Nats' pen, Wang had his first curly-W.
After leading the Majors in errors last season, Desmond's fifth overall in baseball so far in 2011 with 16 errors after Tuesday night's game, to Rangers' SS Elvis Andrus' league-leading 22, tied for third overall with Ryan Theriot in the National League. Desmond's .947 2010 fld% was the NL's worst amongst qualified shortstops, his .968 fld% this season is in the middle of the pack, right in between Starlin Castro .966 and Jose Reyes .970 to Hanley Ramirez's league-worst .957 and the NL's best, Troy Tulowiztki, .993.
Desmond's +2.4 UZR/150's middle of the road too, close to Alex Gonzalez's +3.0, ahead of Jose Reyes' +1.8 and far ahead of Yuniesky Betancourt's NL-worst -19.2. Troy Tulowitzki has an NL-leading +16.3 UZR/150. Desmond, however, has risen from a -9.4 2010 UZR/150. Of his league-leading 34 errors in 149 games in 2010, 21 were fielding errors and 13 were fielding errors, often the result, the Nationals have pointed out, of his range allowing him to get to grounders other infielders might never reach. The ill-advised throws that often followed Desmond had effectively dealt with during 2010, simply pocketing them more often, and this season only three of Desmond's 16 2011 errors are throwing errors.
The Nationals also replaced Adam Kennedy (+5.5 UZR/150, 0.8 WAR) and Cristian Guzman (-4.5 UZR/150, 0.7 WAR) at second with Danny Espinosa (+7.2 UZR/150, +3.1 WAR), added Jayson Werth in right and after Adam LaRoche's injury they've gotten solid work defensively from Michael Morse at first. As a team, Washington's tied for fourth overall in the NL with a +1.2 UZR/150 up from -1.1 in 2010. The improvement up the middle, of the Nats' infield in particular, was part of the plan D.C. GM Mike Rizzo explained to MLB Network Radio hosts Jim Bowden and Casey Stern last winter:
"Next year I think some starting pitchers will find this a good ballpark to pitch in and a defense that they'll want to pitch behind and an offense that they know will score enough runs, and I think that it will be much easier in the future to obtain those quality free agent starters than it has been in the past."
Chien-Ming Wang seemed to trust his infield. John Lannan's on when he's getting ground balls to the left side of the infield. Ross Detwiler's accepted his sinker and decided to trust the Nats' defense. Jordan Zimmermann's got strikeout stuff but has talked often of pitching to contact. D.C. GM Mike Rizzo discussed Stephen Strasburg pitching to contact too in SI.com's Tom Verducci's article, "Mechanical flaw will be red flag for Strasburg even after return", explaining that the right-hander doesn't necessarily need to strike out every batter he faces:
"We think he can get more outs with 95, 96 miles an hour two-seamers. He can get those groundball outs early in counts. Getting those mis-hits will make him more efficient with his pitches."
Which, coincidentally is what Detroit Tigers' starter Justin Verlander said when discussing advice for Stephen Strasburg and pitchers in general in Yahoo!Sports.com's Jeff Passan's article on simliarities between the two pitchers entitled, "Strasburg pushes limits in rehab assigment":
""My stuff was so good, I wouldn’t want to get guys out,' Verlander said. 'I’d want to embarrass them. And occasionally, I’d be able to do that. But that leads to 100 pitches, and you’re out in 5 1/3 innings.'"
Though Verlander was clear he wasn't talking specifically about Strasburg, as the Yahoo!Sports.com writer notes, "Excluding the outing in which he injured his elbow, Strasburg averaged a little over 5 2/3 innings per start on 92 pitches." It helps, of course, when the pitchers asked to pitch to contact can trust the defense that's behind them as the Nats' GM noted this winter while assembling the Nats' roster. Now about that offense that Nationals' pitchers, "... know will score enough runs."