Tuesday, April 5, 2011, 10:48 p.m.
Updated at 12:42 a.m.NATIONALS PAGE NATIONALS VIDEO
By Mark ZuckermanNationals Insider
MIAMI -- The ball came off Omar Infante's bat and went high into the South Florida night, a big-league pop-up that Danny Espinosa needed only to back up five or six steps from his second-base position to camp underneath.
And then Espinosa heard Jayson Werth charging in from right field, calling him off.
"I wasn't totally sure that Espi was going to get it," Werth explained. "So I called it."
Werth was probably the only one inside Sun Life Stadium who didn't realize Espinosa had the play made with ease. He was at most 10 feet behind the infield dirt. Werth had absolutely no business barging in.
And by night's end, after he had dropped the ball and set in motion the chain of events that gave the Florida Marlins a 3-2, 10-inning victory over the Washington Nationals, Werth knew he alone was to blame.
"That cost us the game," he said. "Tough spot. Obviously, I take total responsibility for that one."
Werth's inexplicable gaffe may have been the leading cause of this punch-to-the-gut loss, but it was hardly the only mistake made over the course of three hours and 30 minutes.
There was third base coach Bo Porter's ill-advised decision to wave Jerry Hairston around with two outs in the top of the eighth. And there were countless missed RBI opportunities by just about everyone in the Nationals' lineup, leading to 12 stranded runners.
But Werth's error was easily the lowlight of the evening, and one that surely left fans back home thinking these Nationals continue to look a lot like the last-place Nationals of the past three years. Even if the manager wasn't publicly as upset about it as everyone else.
"I just like the effort," Jim Riggleman said. "He came in hard, he really took charge on the play. It's an error of aggression, and we can live with that."
Errors of aggression. Sure, they may be more palatable than errors of passiveness. But that doesn't make them any easier to watch. Especially when they're being committed by a club that's made far too many of these over the years and is supposed to have advanced past that stage in its development.
If anything, it looks like the Nationals are trying too hard to make something good happen and get this season off on a positive note. Instead, they're only making things worse.
"I think everybody just wants to do their job right now and maybe is pressing a little bit," said Werth, who has reached base in seven of 17 plate appearances but has yet to drive in a run. "We just need to relax and play the game."
The Nationals look anything but relaxed at the moment. They look jittery in the field and on the bases. And they look overanxious at the plate, perhaps leading to their abysmal .121 average with runners in scoring position through the season's first four games.
And when you're struggling to score runs, you start taking chances that are unlikely to pay off. Just look at Porter's mistake in the eighth inning Tuesday night. With two outs and Jerry Hairston on first base, Werth crushed a line drive off the left-field fence. The Marlins got the ball back in quickly, but Porter didn't realize just how quickly and started waving Hairston around. By the time the coach realized his mistake, it was too late. Hairston was caught in a rundown and was tagged out to end the inning with the team's hottest hitter, Ryan Zimmerman, in the on-deck circle.
"It's a bad feeling," Porter said in acknowledging his poor decision. "You're over there long enough, you'll make that mistake. And I've made it before. ... You were hoping we could score a run and win the game. It didn't happen tonight."
Instead of taking a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the eighth, the Nationals remained tied with the Marlins. And by the time Werth botched Infante's routine pop-up to begin the bottom of the 10th, it only seemed a matter of time before this one ended in heart-wrenching fashion for the visiting squad.
The Marlins quickly loaded the bases with nobody out against reliever Drew Storen, forcing Riggleman to summon Sean Burnett from the bullpen and Hairston from left field to serve as a fifth infielder in this do-or-die scenario.
Amazingly, Burnett got Logan Morrison to hit a shallow fly ball, then struck out John Buck to bring himself within one out of escaping the jam.
"I was just trying to pull a Houdini act and get out of there somehow, some way," the left-hander said.
Like his teammates, though, perhaps Burnett tried to do a little too much when he would have been better served pitching within his means. With Donnie Murphy at the plate, Burnett tried to place a sinker down and away. He wound up leaving it over the heart of the strike zone. Murphy tagged a base hit to left-center, Infante waltzed home with the winning run and the Nationals trudged off the field in shame, owners of a 1-3 record.
"We really haven't played that particularly well the start of the season, but we've been in games," Hairston said. "We're putting ourselves in position to win, which is good. We've just got to get over the hump. And we will."
For that to happen, though, the Nationals will need to take a deep breath and stop trying to force the issue. There's enough talent on this roster to win at a reasonable rate. They just have to trust themselves to do it.
Seems simple enough, except when you consider how snake-bitten this franchise seems to be sometimes.
Tuesday's loss was bad, sure. But as if someone was playing a cruel joke on them, the Nationals retreated to their clubhouse to find a leak in the ceiling and a broken-down bus unable to transport them back to their hotel in a driving rainstorm.
"It's a brand-new bus, too," general manager Mike Rizzo said with a defeated laugh. Given all that had happened over the course of the night, "it should be broken down," Rizzo pointed out.
An appropriate conclusion to a miserable evening at the ballpark for a franchise that desperately wants to enjoy good times yet still can't figure out how to make that happen.
Mark Zuckerman also blogs about the Nationals at natsinsider.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @MarkZuckerman.