Defense hinders improved pitching for Nats

Defense hinders improved pitching for Nats

WASHINGTON -- It looked like the Nationals were going to be a pleasant surprise in 2010.

They finished April with a 13-10 record. They played above-average defense, pitched well and received timely hitting. However, by mid-May until the rest of the season, Washington played like the 2009 team that lost 103 games.

Sure, there was a brief period in June where it looked like the team had turned the corner when highly touted right-hander Stephen Strasburg was added to the Major League roster. Except for when he was on the mound, Strasburg's presence didn't elevate the Nationals as a whole.

This season's problems mirrored last year's. While the pitching improved, the Nationals had trouble catching the ball and scoring runs. Most of the errors came from the infield, with shortstop Ian Desmond leading the Majors in that department.

But the miscues don't tell the whole story. Washington had outfielders missing the cutoff man and others players not having enough range to play certain positions.

The Nationals also had difficulty scoring runs because they received virtually nothing from the top of the lineup. For example, after hitting .351 for Washington last year, center fielder Nyjer Morgan was supposed to be the catalyst of the offense. But he ended up having the worst year of his career. Even worse, Morgan had problems stealing bases.

Manager Jim Riggleman didn't hesitate to answer about how the Nats can improve.

Top 12 moments

"Certainly, we're not satisfied," Riggleman said. "I think what you are alluding to is that the Phillies are winning 90-plus and we are losing 90-plus. There is a gap there we have to close, and we have to close it by playing better baseball and just raising the bar for what our expectations are and meet those expectations. But nobody is going to let you do it. They are not going to let you win ballgames."

Record: 69-93, fifth in National League East.

Defining moment: A sellout crowd of 40,315 saw Strasburg allow just four hits, and his 14 strikeouts established a club record (More | ). The 14 punchouts by Strasburg in a Major League debut were one shy of the all-time mark of 15 set by Karl Spooner in 1954 and J.R. Richard in '71. Even more amazing was that he struck out no more than nine batters in a game when pitching in the Minor Leagues. Strasburg, who did the job without looking at scouting reports, threw 94 pitches, 65 for strikes, and didn't walk a batter. The righty retired his final 10 batters, striking out his last seven.

What went right: The pitching staff overachieved under pitching coach Steve McCatty. It had a respectable 4.13 ERA, even though hurlers such as Strasburg, Jason Marquis and Scott Olsen spent a lot of time on the disabled list and John Lannan spent more than a month in the Minor Leagues. It helped that that the Nationals had an incredible bullpen led by Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard. ... Position players such as Adam Dunn and Ryan Zimmerman were the usual run producers, while the farm system produced productive players such as Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Roger Bernadina.

What went wrong: The defensive problems of 2009 carried over into the '10 season. It's hard to blame Riggleman and his coaching staff. They were often conducting fielding drills before games. Whatever they were teaching their players, it didn't register by game time. ... The injury bug continued to haunt the Nationals. The biggest blow was losing Strasburg in late August because of Tommy John surgery (More | ). He is not expected to be back until late next year, so general manager Mike Rizzo has to find a No. 1 starter this offseason. ... Morgan's on-base percentage was so bad that Riggleman had to put him in the eighth spot in the order.

Biggest surprise: For the first time since Jose Vidro wore a Nationals/Expos uniform, a player on the 2010 Nationals wasn't afraid to say what was on his mind: That person was Desmond, a rookie. When things went wrong on the field, Desmond was the first to mention the problems (More | ).

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.