Sunday, April 3, 2011, 4:33 p.m.
Updated at 6:17 p.m.
NATIONALS PAGE NATIONALS VIDEO
By Mark Zuckerman
The Nationals have lost plenty of games like this over the years, lopsided defeats that really turn ugly late and leave fans either booing or streaming for the exits. It would be easy to look at Sunday's 11-2 thrashing at the hands of the Braves, shake your head and mutter: "Same old Nats."
There was, however, one aspect of this beatdown that bore very little resemblance to the beatdowns the Nationals have taken in previous years. They didn't have to wait for someone to speak up and tell them this performance was unacceptable.
"That's the good thing about this club: Nobody has to," Ryan Zimmerman said. "We all know. In years past, I think that might not have been the case. But I think this year we realize we can't do that in any game in this division, or you're gonna get your ass beat."
That's not the kind of quote Nationals fans are accustomed to hearing come out of Zimmerman's mouth. The face of the franchise has always talked about being a clubhouse leader, but his criticism has usually been muted.
Perhaps after six years of losing, Zimmerman has simply had enough. Perhaps he doesn't want his new teammates -- professionals like Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche, Rick Ankiel and others who have played on winning clubs -- to think this kind of sloppy performance gets shrugged off in D.C.
"Just little things during that game that you saw, that I'm sure everyone saw," Zimmerman said. "If we want to be a winning team, that stuff can't happen."
There were plenty of little things that were not done well Sunday. Officially, the Nationals committed only one error: Danny Espinosa's botching of a relay from the outfield in the top of the fifth. But that was far from the only miscue from a club that had played near-flawless defense during the season's first two games.
Espinosa himself made about four shaky plays at second base, including a couple of grounders and a wild throw to third that would have landed in the Atlanta dugout if not for Jordan Zimmermann's astute backup of the play.
"Those are mistakes that I understand I made," the rookie said. "They'll be fixed."
As ugly as the Nationals' defensive showing was Sunday, it paled in comparison to the train wreck performance put on by the string of relievers manager Jim Riggleman summoned in the seventh and eighth innings.
Todd Coffey, Doug Slaten, Brian Broderick and Chad Gaudin combined to face 18 batters. They retired only six, turning what had been a tight, 3-1 ballgame into a rout.
Broderick, a Rule 5 draftee making his big-league debut, suffered the biggest indignity. The right-hander allowed four of six batters faced to reach safely and balked in a run when his cleat got caught trying to deliver a pitch to Eric Hinske with the bases loaded in the seventh.
Clearly, the rookie reliever was nervous in his first career outing.
"Who wouldn't be?" Broderick said. "Your Opening Day, going out there and pitching for the first time in a professional ballpark. Yeah, I was nervous going out there and pitching."
Broderick at least had an excuse for his jittery performance. His more-experienced teammates had none. Fortunately, they didn't try to make excuses afterward.
"We can't come out and play like that and expect to win, especially against a good team like that," Zimmerman said.
Had this game been played last season, Riggleman likely would have felt the need to gather his troops and speak to them. Clearly, he wasn't happy with what he saw.
"The game just didn't have the same energy as the last two days," he said. "That's what was disappointing. ... I just thought we would have carried a little more fire into this ballgame after yesterday."
Players talked all spring, though, about the changed culture inside the Nationals clubhouse. They don't need their manager to babysit everyone anymore. The players are policing themselves.
And leading the charge is the guy who has been serving as the face of the franchise for nearly six years now and has perhaps decided this team can't accept being anything less than its best on a daily basis.
"The first two games of this year, we played very well," Zimmerman said. "I just think we expect more out of ourselves than we did today. It's not like we didn't go out there and try. We just need to have a little more, I guess, sense of urgency when we have a chance to win a series. That's the goal: To win series. And we believe we can win series against everybody."
Mark Zuckerman also blogs about the Nationals at natsinsider.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @MarkZuckerman.