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MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

Nats have yet to hit stride, but Williams confident

Comeback win puts club at 12-10, and skipper sees better days ahead

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MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Nationals should be significantly better than their overall early-season performance has indicated. Perhaps they could even be as good as they were in the ninth inning Wednesday night.

On the verge of being swept in a three-game series at home by the Angels, down 4-1 in the bottom of the ninth, the Nats staged a remarkable revival and emerged with a 5-4 victory.

It was a tribute to perseverance, will, skill, whatever you want. And it was a salvage job at the same time. A loss here would have left the Nationals at .500 and 4-9 over their last 13 games. With a loss, their primary perception of this series could have been essentially playing the polite fall guys in the Albert Pujols movie: "How I Hit My 499th and Then 500th Home Runs."

Instead, they have this stirring comeback to remember. The Washington ninth featured a home run by catcher Jose Lobaton, a tying two-run double on a 3-0 pitch by right fielder Jayson Werth, and a game-winning single by first baseman Adam LaRoche.

Just like that, the Nats went from deeply minus to extremely plus.

"Last night, we were sitting here talking about how bad we are, and tonight, it's a different story," Werth said with a smile. "It's a crazy game."

Come-from-behind victories early in the season, as Werth said, offer something to build on for a team's confidence over the long haul.

"It doesn't look good being down in the ninth with their closer [Ernesto Frieri] in there," Nationals manager Matt Williams said, adding in regard to his players: "But if they've shown anything, it's that they fight."

That's the plus side, and it's substantial. But there have been areas of concern for what must be regarded as an exceptionally talented team. Most troubling for the Nationals was the fact that over their first 21 games, they led the Majors in errors with 23. Shortstop Ian Desmond, who is typically much better than this defensively, led the way with eight errors.

Williams, the new manager, is doing exactly what he should be doing, which is publicly keeping the faith. The Nats held an early infield practice Wednesday, initiated by the players, at which three infield regulars were present; Desmond, third baseman Anthony Rendon and second baseman Danny Espinosa.

This encouraged Williams.

"They came out on their own free will today, which is good," the manager said. "That shows me something. They care about it.

"So they're working hard at it. There's only one way to get out of something you're in. If you're in a slump, you hit. If we're not playing clean, then we work at it. That's just the way baseball is, that's what you have to do."

The unsightly number of errors, Williams assured one and all, was an aberration.

"I do believe that this is not the norm," Williams said. "And I think we'll see that. I don't believe that's our norm. We'll just continue to work."

Here is the question that lingers with the 2014 Nats: Which team is this? There have been injuries, certainly, and no one would argue the notion that the club will be better when, for instance, Ryan Zimmerman is playing regularly again and Doug Fister is in the starting rotation.

But overall, this is not a vastly different team than the 2012 Nationals, who led the Majors in regular-season victories with 98. It is also not dramatically different from the 2013 Nationals, who won 86 games and underachieved.

The 2014 Nats are 12-10. They have not arrived at catastrophe's corner. But there is general agreement that their overall level of play should be higher.

"I don't think we've played well yet," Williams said. "That's what I see. There's been spots of good. There's been spots of great. We've seen big comebacks, things like that. But over the course of a number of games, I don't think we've put it together, yet. I do believe that we will. But as of right now, that hasn't happened. We continue to work hard to get to that point.

"It's difficult when you're not playing as well as you want to play. Everybody's human. Everybody's got emotions. Does it bother [Desmond] when he makes an error? Of course. It would bother me, it would bother you. And the fact that those types of things have led to big innings makes it even worse.

"So I'm concerned about the guys and how they feel. My job is to make sure that they know that I'm OK with them. They're working hard. They're doing what they're supposed to do. And we'll get to that point where we're playing really well."

The Nationals got to that point Wednesday night, at the very moment when hope was fading and being swept at home looked like a near-certainty. The next move up the ladder would be to "put it together," as Williams says, get to a better level, and stay there over time, preferably most of the 2014 season.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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