Through the 2012 and 2013 seasons, the only winning campaigns since the Nationals moved to Washington in 2005, one could argue their most consistent position player was Ian Desmond, and their best relief pitcher was Tyler Clippard.
Somehow, three weeks into this new season, each has become their own unique liability. Desmond is committing errors like it's 2010, and Clippard is pitching through one of his worst months as a National.
The two combined to unravel in the eighth inning of the Nats' 4-2 loss to the Angels on Monday night after the team entered the frame with the lead. 1-0 was the score and Clippard was taking over for Drew Storen, who closed the seventh by retiring Mike Trout.
Clippard's first batter was Albert Pujols who hit a hard groundball up the middle. Desmond got a glove on the ball, but couldn't handle it. Pujols was safe at first on Desmond's eighth error of the season.
"The first one's a difficult error," Matt Williams said. "He's got to range way to the middle. And he stretched out to catch that ball. If he comes up clean, he's got a chance to throw him out."
Desmond called it a play he normally makes.
"I'm a big league shortstop. Not that tough," Desmond said.
Clippard struck out the second batter, Ian Stewart, but saw Pujols steal second on strike three. Next up was Howie Kendrick who hit another groundball to Desmond, this one to his right. Desmond never attempted the throw to first, instead trying to throw behind Pujols who had barely rounded third. Pujols got back in time and runners were safe at the corners.
After Boesch popped up for the second out, Clippard served up a four-seam fastball that Erick Aybar took the other way to right field for a single. That scored Pujols and tied the game at one.
"The pitch to Aybar, I wasn't real happy with that decision," Clippard said. "Obviously, I wanted the fastball away. Probably wasn't the right pitch selection. But I pulled it right down the middle, and he got a base hit. I had numerous opportunities to get out of that inning. It didn't happen."
With Aybar on first and Kendrick on second, Clippard then walked Chris Iannetta on five pitches to load the bases. That brought veteran Raul Ibanez to the plate as a pinch-hitter, a guy with a strong history against Clippard.
Coming into the game Ibanez was 3-for-9 with two homers, a walk and six RBI off the relief pitcher. But even with that on his record, Clippard remained in the game with no one warming up in the bullpen.
"Clip's been the eighth inning guy here for a long time," Williams said. "Certainly (his) track record indicates that he's good against lefties. He's just as effective against left-handers as he is right-handers. So I want to stay with him there. I want him to be our guy that shuts down that eighth inning."
It was then the inning really got out of hand. Ibanez went opposite field on a changeup low and away, usually the best offering Clippard has. The ball sailed right between Bryce Harper and Denard Span in left-center field, and cleared the bases for three more runs.
"It was a good changeup," Clippard said. "First one, you know, was pretty much in the same spot. Swung through it. He's a guy that traditionally hunts fastballs, and I knew that. I felt like I made a good pitch there."
Williams reviewed video of the pitch before speaking to the media after the game and agreed it was a good decision by Clippard, despite the result.
"I just looked at the pitch. It's a pretty darn good pitch: changeup down, off the plate, away. And Raul's a good hitter, but that's a tough pitch for anybody to handle."
Desmond was also credited with an error on that play, as his relay throw to home skipped to Jose Lobaton's right. The throw, though not far off, allowed Ibanez to advance to third.
A four-run inning with two errors by Desmond, and the Nationals were essentially finished. Desmond would add a solo home run an inning later, but the Nationals were again done in by defensive mistakes and an unfortunate outing by Clippard.
Desmond now has nine total errors through 20 games, most in the majors by a good margin. He is now on pace to commit over 70 errors this season, more than double his career-high of 34. That course almost certainly can't continue, but it is becoming a significant problem for the Nats.
Clippard was not credited with any of the four runs, but is still searching for success through 11 appearances this season. In five of those games he's entered with the Nats either leading or tied, but departed with them trailing.
Desmond and Clippard have been a big part of the Nationals' rise as a franchise since the beginning of 2012. They each vowed after Monday's loss to get back to being the players they have been in recent years.
"I wish I had an answer," Desmond said. "You use everything in the past to make yourself better. This is going to be one of those circumstances. Just got to weather the storm."
"Things just have snowballed on me a little bit here. I’ve [been] going through a rough patch," Clippard said. "This month hasn’t been very good to me. But it’s up to me to get out of it. I can sit here and make all the excuses in the world and say I’m doing this right or this wrong or whatever it is, but at the end of the day what matters is the results and the results haven’t been there so far this year for me. And nobody’s going to feel sorry for me so I just got to get out of it and do what I know how to do.”