WASHINGTON (AP) The Cardinals' first batter sent a seemingly routine grounder to Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond, who failed to field the ball cleanly for one of his two errors on the evening. The next hitter's swinging bunt was grabbed by pitcher Taylor Jordan, but he could not manage to get the ball out of his glove.
And so began the latest disastrous defensive showing by Washington, whose rookie manager, Matt Williams, made better fielding a point of emphasis this spring. So much for that. The Nationals finished with four errors - raising their total to 20 in 16 games - and that was the last thing they needed Thursday, because Adam Wainwright was dominant while throwing a two-hitter to lead St. Louis to a 7-0 victory.
''The first ball of the game, you boot it, that doesn't set the tone. If I ever want to be the captain of this team - and I do - I'm going to have to be better than that,'' said Desmond, who has seven errors this season. ''I've been in some dark places defensively, and this is right there with them.''
Desmond made 34 errors in 2010 in his first full season in the majors, and since then had years with 23, 15 and 20 miscues.
''I don't know how or why I get here. But look, I believe in myself. I believe I can be the best defensive shortstop in the game,'' he said. ''Right now I'm not playing like that one bit.''
He's hardly the only Nationals player having problems. Desmond's throwing error in the fourth was compounded by an error on second baseman Danny Espinosa, who dropped the ball while making a transfer on a potential double play, resulting in an RBI for Wainwright that made it 4-0. Nationals right fielder Jayson Werth dropped a flyball in the eighth.
''It's not lack of effort. It's not lack of preparation,'' Williams said. ''It's not lack of anything.''
Perhaps, but it's also not the only tough trend for his team.
So far, the Nationals have beaten weaker opponents, going a combined 8-1 against the Mets and Marlins, and struggled against better teams, going 1-6 against the Braves and Cardinals. Remnants of last season, when the Nationals went 6-13 against the Braves and 0-6 against the Cardinals.
It's as if Washington sees those clubs and forgets the basics of baseball.
''If you don't play well against these guys, you're probably going to get beat,'' Williams said before Thursday's game. ''We understand that we have to play the game right and play it well to have a chance to win.''
Afterward, he was curt with a reporter who asked what Williams told his team in the clubhouse. The reporter also noted that Williams appeared upset.
''I seem very upset? No, I'm not answering that question. That's for me and my team. And nobody else's business,'' Williams said.
He called the game ''probably the worst one we've played.''
Didn't help that Wainwright (3-1) was terrific. He delivered his seventh career shutout and 17th complete game - and even chipped in at the plate with a double and single.
Wainwright allowed Desmond's infield single in the second inning and Adam LaRoche's single to right in the ninth. He struck out eight and walked three. During one stretch, the runner-up for the 2013 NL Cy Young Award retired 18 consecutive batters.
''I had pretty much everything working. My sinker was sinking, my four-seamer was four-seaming, my curveball was curving,'' Wainwright said. ''My cutter was back. That was a big pitch for me tonight, something that when I'm throwing that quality, good, hard cutter (and) not a sloppy slurvy slider thing, it keeps those lefties honest.''
Wainwright threw 110 pitches and closed by striking out Desmond.
Jordan (0-1) gave up seven runs, five earned, in 5 1-3 innings. Matt Adams drove in three runs, and the Cardinals finished with 14 hits. All nine members of the starting lineup had at least one.
And Washington made things easy.
''Every team has the possibility of that happening to them at any particular time,'' Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. ''And that's just one of those days you just want to get over with and move forward.''
NOTES: St. Louis has won eight in a row against Washington, dating to Game 5 of the 2012 NL division series. ... In Friday's second game of the four-game series, Cardinals RHP Michael Wacha (2-0, 1.89 ERA) will face Nationals LHP Gio Gonzalez (2-1, 3.50 ERA). ... The Cardinals put RHP Joe Kelly on the 15-day DL with a strained left hamstring.
Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich