There's no way to sugarcoat it. The bottom of the third inning of Monday's 9-4 loss to the Boston Red Sox was a complete disaster. It began with one of the best control pitchers in baseball hitting the first two batters in the inning after getting ahead of each of them 0-2. We would go on to see not one, but two easy pop flies find a patch of grass in the outfield because of miscommunication in the outfield. We even got to see a lack of communication on the infield turn a possible out into an infield single when Yunel Escobar cut Ian Desmond off. It was an ugly half inning from just about every player on the field.
After watching yesterday's game (and before the stats updated to include yesterday's game), I went to Fangraphs to check the Nats defensive performance so far this season. With the way that the team had performed defensively in their first six games, I didn't expect to like what I'd find. Ian Desmond has committed five errors, but that's not the only component that factors into his defensive stats. Dan Uggla is... well... Dan Uggla, and he's been the primary second baseman so far this season for the Nats. The Tyler Moore/Clint Robinson platoon isn't expected to be a great boost to the overall defense. Even Yunel Escobar is playing a position he's not used to. Still, the numbers weren't that bad for the first six games. The Nats had just -2 Defensive Runs Saved.
Part of the reason that I went to check that before the stats updated is that I wanted to see just how dramatic of an effect yesterday's game had on the Nats defense. Of course, we do have to mention the obvious caveat that we're looking at an extremely small sample, but the Nats team DRS now stands at -10! In a game where the Nats lost 9-4, their defense had -8 Defensive Runs Saved! I'm not sure I'd be able to find the worst team games (individual games) in terms of DRS, but I would like to think that we wouldn't find too many games where a defense performed quite as poorly as the Nats did yesterday.
Here comes that narrative I mentioned in the intro, though.... Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom.
After falling behind 8-0 in that third inning, the Nats started to do something that I haven't seen them do very often so far this year. For the first time this season, the Nats weren't in a game that was ridiculously tight, and even though that was because they were so far behind, they looked like they started to relax a bit on the field...
- They suddenly remembered how to play defense, converting routine plays (heck... even some difficult plays) into outs. They even turned a couple of double plays
- Some of the hitters suddenly seemed more comfortable at the plate. Until the ninth inning, when Junichi Tazawa struck out the side, the Nats were doing a better job of putting the ball in play, and some good things happened. Even left side Danny put the ball in play with a runner on third and less than two outs and hit his first homer of the year into the Red Sox bullpen
- The relievers pretty much held the deficit where it was, allowing just a solo homer to David Ortiz in 5.2 innings. I can't lie and say I'm thrilled that Aaron Barrett and Xavier Cedeno walked three in their two innings (Cedeno added two wild pitches), but Cedeno did come in to face a bunch of right-handed hitters, so......
Yes, it was a rough game on Monday. The Nats performed miserably for about three innings. If you're a believer in momentum, maybe Mookie Betts stealing a home run from Bryce Harper turned the tide against the Nats. Betts, a favorite potential trade target for Nats fans after they signed Scherzer, showed us why the Red Sox were unlikely to deal him for a pitcher they would only have one or two years control over. He robbed Harper of a two run blast in the top of the first. He then swiped second and third on the same play when the Nats left third base uncovered with the shift on. He followed that up with a three run blast in the second inning.
Betts was the best player on the field yesterday. Just 22 years old and with six years of club control remaining, he only figures to get better. I'm not saying that we can expect yesterday to become the norm. Those types of games are special.... you just don't see a guy steal a homer, hit a homer, and steal two bases on a heady play like that all in the same game very often. Still, the Sox have a young stud on their hands.
As for the Nats, they've struggled out of the gate. The defense hasn't been crisp. The hitting has been abysmal. The starting pitching has been fantastic, but the bullpen (and bullpen management) hasn't done a very good job of holding late leads. In Monday's game, the poor play looked contagious for the first few innings. Let's hope that third inning was the nadir of the Nats season.