Nationals Playing Tight

The discussion of confidence or clubhouse chemistry is one that is normally eye roll inducing, but having watched the Nationals so far this season, especially against the Mets, something is wrong. The Nationals are playing tight. Pitching mistakes are being compounded by errors in the field and errors in the field compounded by pitching mistakes. The Nats are working into positive situations on the bases and then working themselves out of them at the plate. Look no further than Jayson Werth swinging on the 3-0 pitch yesterday against a pitcher that had demonstrated no control. The Nationals were two pitches away from having the bases loaded with no outs and then with one swing they had a runner on third and two outs. In his entire career Werth has swung 3-0 88 times. The swinging 3-0 wasn't the problem though. The problem was Werth summed up what has gone wrong with the Nationals season.

Werth was trying to make something happen instead of letting the game come to him. For the Nationals thus far it is feeling like every good thing has taken a monumental journey to make happen and that every negative will lead to the worst possible outcome. Every team has errors happen, but then the pitcher buckles down and picks his teammates up. That isn't happening for the Nationals. The Nats have allowed the most unearned runs in baseball. They have also run themselves out of innings, swung at pitches they shouldn't at the plate and continue to make costly errors in the field. Now it has become an issue, gotten attention and people are talking about the struggling Nationals and wondering what is wrong with them. The Nationals have taken mistakes that happen to every team and baseball, buried them under more mistakes, and now trying to relax and play the game of baseball will become even more difficult.

Look at the Nats pitching. Neither their 18.9% K rate or 7.0% walk rate are bad. Both are in line with the division rival Braves, but the issue isn't that the Nationals aren't getting K's or aren't avoiding the walk. It is everything that is happening in the counts between. After the game yesterday a caller into the sports talk station said it was time for Steve McCatty to go because this pitching to contact thing isn't working. The problem with that idea is that the main issue with the Nationals and pitching is that they are not pitching to contact. They are pitching too much to avoid contact. At 54% the Nationals are next to last in the NL in first pitch strikes, they have seen 35 3-0 counts compared to a league average of 35, and have only seen 156 0-2 counts compared to a league average of 161. The Nationals pitchers are pitching out of fear of contact. Which happens to be the worst thing a pitcher can do.

Good pitchers don't care about contact in zero or one strike counts. It is statistically impossible to get a strikeout before the batter has two strikes against him and therefore good pitchers will make good quality pitches in those counts and if the batter swings and makes contact more often than not it will be poor contact and if the batter does make solid contact on a pitcher's pitch then the pitcher should tip their hat and move on with their lives. A symptom of playing tight is any adversity feels like the worst possible sort of adversity.

Look at Gio Gonzalez's disastrous fourth inning Saturday. David Wright led-off the inning with a triple. With a 3-0 lead this shouldn't be that big of a deal. Get the next guy out and even if it is on a ground out or fly out then you still have a 3-1 lead, but at least an out has been made. Gonzalez didn't do this. He pitched to avoid contact to John Buck, fell behind 3-1 and walked him. Gonzalez then got a come backer that held the runners and a hard ground ball to third and Wright ended up being tagged out in a run down. No damage had been done thus far and Gio Gonzalez and the Nationals were one pitch from being out of the inning, but then Gonzalez walked Duda on four pitches, gave up a 1-1 single to Cowgill, walked Tejada on a 3-2 pitch, gave up a single to Turner on a 1-0 pitch, and a single to Murphy on a 3-1 pitch before getting David Wright to ground out to end the inning.  

Even when Gio Gonzalez wasn't giving up walks he was falling behind hitters and was forced to give in and throw them a pitch they could handle. If he had pitched in the zone early in the count then the batters would have been behind and forced to swing at his pitches. The triple to David Wright set the inning off on the wrong tone as Gonzalez then was pitching to avoid contact and get a strikeout when he shouldn't have changed his approach at all and remained concerned with getting ahead of hitters and simply getting outs. Each issue in that inning became exasperated by the next issue and Gio wore them all like an anchor around his neck.

Major league players should not succumb to pressure. The fielding errors the Nats have made should have no impact on how the pitcher works the next batter, a runner on base shouldn't feel like an automatic run, and it shouldn't feel like an unexpected journey to score Nats runners that happen to get on base. In case you were wondering the Nationals are .200/.333/.345 with two outs and runners in scoring position. That happens to be right around league average which would be good but in all situations the Nats have an OPS .029 points above league average.

From the looks of everything the Nationals need to loosen up, relax, and play the game of baseball. Pressure and expectations shouldn't affect major league baseball players. Making it to the majors is much greater pressure than anything faced once there. The Nats roster wasn't thought of as one of the most talented assembled for no reason. Now they have to play like it, and that won't happen by force of will or by trying to make it happen. It can only happen, and will only happen when the Nationals stop trying to force it. It is impossible to win 98 games and the World Series in April, but that is what it looks like the Nationals are trying to do. In order to play up to their ability they need to stop trying to force themselves on the game of baseball and let the game come to them.

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