Winning Formula Eludes Nationals

Alfonso Soriano hits an infield single in the third inning. He doubled home a run and scored in the fourth.
Alfonso Soriano hits an infield single in the third inning. He doubled home a run and scored in the fourth. (By Nam Y. Huh -- Associated Press)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 5, 2007

CHICAGO, May 4 -- Manny Acta knows, because he has been there and done it himself, how much teaching goes on in the minor leagues, lectures to teenagers before games in front of hundreds instead of thousands. But here is Acta, his first year managing in the majors. Friday afternoon, with a crowd of 39,444 huddled into Wrigley Field, the 38-year-old felt like putting on professor's spectacles, grabbing a lectern and beginning a class: How to Win Baseball Games.

It was plain, after his Washington Nationals blew a four-run lead in a 6-4 loss to the Chicago Cubs, that a summer-long course is only beginning. The Nationals now have lost three straight and five of six. They had volatile Cubs right-hander Carlos Zambrano teetering after a four-run first inning, but never scored again. They handed Jason Bergmann, their starter, that advantage, but former National Alfonso Soriano and slugging first baseman Derrek Lee helped the Cubs take it back.

So the list of potential lessons is long. Friday's lecture could be more specific, because the Nationals have rarely, in a 9-20 start to the season, seized a lead and then put a team away. They have scored six or more runs three times, and never scored more than seven.

"We just got to keep teaching these guys about not letting up," Acta said. "How can you explain going out there with that approach with Zambrano in the first inning, working the count, scoring four runs and then after that allowing him to just have some easy innings? Guys just completely forgot what they did in the first inning, and then just kind of sat and waited until everything happened."

So the confidence that was brought on by that four-run first -- in which Felipe Lopez led off with a triple and Austin Kearns delivered a three-run homer -- quickly dissolved into frustration. Zambrano threw 35 pitches in the first frame, but never more than half that in any of his remaining five. That, Acta said, was more important than the fact that Bergmann left a 2-2 fastball over the plate that Lee hit for a two-run homer, the blow that began the comeback in the third.

"We just haven't learned how to win without having an outstanding performance by the pitcher," Acta said. "And in this game, you're going to have to learn how to win even when you're struggling at the plate or when you're struggling on the mound. There are games that teams win without having a two-hit shutout, and we just haven't learned how to do that."

The players, for the most part, agreed. "It's a learning process," center fielder Ryan Church said.

"It gets old," Kearns said. "We sit here and say we know we're capable of doing it, but we've got to do it. We score four runs in Wrigley Field, that's not going to cut it. We've got to do better."

Things are going better for the Cubs, who have won six of seven. Several Nationals spent the previous evening dining with Soriano, who began the comeback with a check-swing, infield single in the third, one that preceded Lee's two-run homer in an inning in which the Cubs also scored an unearned run on third baseman Ryan Zimmerman's throwing error. Soriano then contributed an RBI double in the fourth, scoring the go-ahead run on Cliff Floyd's two-out single.

Acta understands he doesn't have players the caliber of Lee, who has reached base safely in all 27 of the Cubs' games and has extra-base hits in nine straight. They no longer have Soriano, who left in free agency, and they don't have a dynamic starting pitcher such as Zambrano.

But what bothers the manager are recurring themes, the bad at-bats that come after the team takes a lead, the failure to come through time and again with runners in scoring position. Friday, the key at-bat came in the seventh, when a pair of walks sandwiched around a Zimmerman double loaded the bases with the Nationals down 5-4. Cubs Manager Lou Piniella brought in right-hander Bobby Howry to face Kearns, and Howry threw Kearns a 1-1 fastball on the outer part of the plate, "something that I could handle," Kearns said.

He handled it by hitting it hard, but directly at shortstop Cesar Izturis. So the Nationals came away with nothing, allowing the Cubs an insurance run in the eighth. Zimmerman, as the tying run, struck out against Ryan Dempster to end it, and a winnable game was lost.

"We've got to give ourselves some margin for error, because we don't have right now the best defense in the league or the best pitching or the best hitting," Acta said. "That's why I say you got to learn how to win when you don't have everything going for you."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company