Sports

Perspective | The Nationals aren’t just bad. They’re hard to watch.

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If you didn’t stay up to watch the 10th inning of the Washington Nationals’ Wednesday night showdown in Miami — and let’s be honest: Who would? — then you may have missed the play that best typifies the first two months of this dreadful season. It wasn’t either of the two walks that led to Tanner Rainey’s blown save. It wasn’t Keibert Ruiz’s go-ahead double.

Rather, it was the flyball hit by the Marlins’ Avisaíl García with one out in the bottom of the 10th. Nationals center fielder Victor Robles tracked it down easily. And then Robles — for zero reason — uncorked a throw that sailed over third base, where it was mercifully backed up by pitcher Víctor Arano.

Cutoff man, this is Victor Robles. Victor, this is the cutoff man. You guys should get to know each other.

The play doesn’t show up in the box score. It didn’t impact the outcome, because the Nats eked out a 5-4 victory. But it’s exactly the kind of braindead sloppiness that is making a Nationals’ season that was always going to be difficult devolve into a product that is, at times, comically unwatchable.

There’s a lot going on around the local ballclub at the moment. The Lerner family is actively pursuing a sale. General Manager Mike Rizzo and Manager Dave Martinez are in the last guaranteed year of their contracts — though both could have options kick in for the 2023 season. Superstar outfielder Juan Soto is the source of national speculation, with rival executives telling ESPN that they believe the Nats could explore a Soto trade — a development that would represent a complete about-face for the franchise and one I don’t see happening, but a nagging distraction nonetheless.

Amid Nats’ reboot, Mike Rizzo and Dave Martinez are in last guaranteed year

Meanwhile, on a nightly basis, they make mistakes that could be used by Little League coaches as textbook examples of how not to do things. This is a team that had two runners thrown out at third base — on the same play. This is a team that turned a bases-loaded groundball to shortstop into a kick-it-around-the-diamond, three-run disaster. This is a team that turned a first-and-third pickoff attempt into a two-error, two-run fiasco.

The best Nationals’ teams would go the entire season without three occurrences that ugly. This Nationals team committed those blunders within the past week.

Entering play Thursday, when Washington was (mercifully) off, the Nationals led the majors with 32 errors. They are tied for last in fielding percentage (.977). Only four teams are worse in the more advanced metric of defensive runs saved (-8.0).

But the nightly barrage of gaffes can’t be quantified with statistics old or new. It is a more wholistic stench that includes, at various times, a lack of communication, poor judgment and general daftness. Even if you buy into Washington’s reboot as a painful-but-necessary process, this kind of stuff is inexcusable. And the Nationals know it.

“Some of these errors that we’re making are just, brutally honest, kind of lazy mistakes,” Martinez said — last week, before the horror show in Miami.

That show, in which the Nationals turned a pair of competitive games on Monday and Tuesday into rocking chair wins for the Marlins, included plays that seem farcical. On Monday, with the Marlins leading 4-1 in the bottom of the seventh, Jorge Soler ripped a bullet right at Dee Strange-Gordon, who was playing shortstop. In the interest of saving his own life, Strange-Gordon essentially leaped out of the way. He couldn’t snare the ball. It was ruled a single, and two runners scored.

But when left fielder Lane Thomas threw home, Ruiz, the catcher, couldn’t corral the throw, and the ball scooted up the first base line. Arano, the reliever at the time, decided to try to nail Soler at second. The throw was closer to West Palm Beach than South Beach; it zipped into center field. It’s not an exaggeration that the Nationals’ best defensive play of the past week might have been Robles diving to prevent Arano’s throw from going all the way to the wall. Maybe there’s a Gold Glove for saving teammates from further embarrassment.

The very next night in the bottom of the seventh, with runners on first and third and Miami up only 2-0, Nats reliever Erasmo Ramírez tried to pick off Erik Gonzalez at first. Ramírez apparently thought first baseman Josh Bell was sitting near the tarp along the wall — because that’s where he threw the ball. One run scored. Bell tracked down the throw, and for some reason tried to heave one all the way across the diamond to nail Gonzalez at third. The ball, of course, got away. The Marlins had done nothing actively positive — yet had doubled their lead.

On the Marlins broadcast, one of the announcers said, “They used to say, ‘Throw a tent over that circus.’”

That’s what it’s come to. The Marlins are laughing at them.

Oh, and the Nats were in the first-and-third situation in the first place because Ramirez misplayed a sacrifice bunt attempt.

“I’m not going to make a lot of excuses for it,” Rizzo said Wednesday morning on his weekly appearance with “The Junkies” on 106.7 The Fan. “This is the big leagues. You have to pick the ball up and make the routine plays. You have to make them routine. You have to make them all the time, and we’re just not doing it.

“It’s affecting our pitching staff — our starters — and it’s affecting our bullpen. And it affects the final score of the game. It’s the biggest problem we have, and we have to keep working at it to get better.”

But it’s not the only problem they have. The nadir of the Nationals’ ridiculous adventures on the base paths came last Thursday against the New York Mets, when Soto tried to bolt from second even though Mets third baseman Luis Guillorme easily came up with Bell’s grounder — right in front of Soto. In the ensuing rundown, Soto was tagged out by Mets pitcher Taijuan Walker — who then threw the ball into right field, an errant attempt to cut down Bell.

One option would have been for Bell to look to see if Mets right fielder Starling Marte was backing up the play. But such awareness wouldn’t allow for the Looney Tunes theme to be overlaid on the replay. Bell started chugging to third. He was out by the difference between Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Marjorie Taylor Greene.

“I was like, ‘No way,’” Bell said at the time.

Yes, way. This was one play. It wasn’t isolated.

According to baseball-reference.com, the Nationals have been thrown out 13 times on the bases — a total that doesn’t include getting picked off (five times) or being caught stealing (five more times). It does include the night Bell — a slow runner dealing with bad hamstrings — got thrown out at the plate, and three pitches later Yadiel Hernandez blew right through a stop sign to meet the same fate.

The Nats also have a knack for making their outs maximally painful. Twelve of their runners have been thrown out at third or home. No other team has more than 10; the league average is five.

Look, this team was always more likely to lose 100 games than it was to win 90. The most important on-field developments in the coming months revolve around the draft and the trade deadline. Who knows what revamps a new owner might bring?

But believing in a more successful — and watchable — future would be easier if the current players who are being granted jerseys and issued paychecks would take pride in their opportunities and their craft. Physical errors happen. Mental errors shouldn’t.

“We learn from the failures,” Soto said earlier this month. Right now, there’s not a lot of evidence that’s the case, and it makes the product difficult to digest.


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