Nationals Are Managing Just Fine With Acta

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, June 4, 2007

On a grease board outside the Nationals' locker room, these words are written: "Your attitude will always determine your altitude."

Whose handwriting is it? "Manny for sure," Ryan Zimmerman said of rookie manager Manny Acta.

Right now, the Nats' altitude is hard to comprehend, so the team's attitude under Acta certainly is a big part of the reason. This team, picked to be the worst in baseball and perhaps the worst in history, has a better record (23-34) than the Rangers, Royals or Reds, the same number of wins as the Cubs, Astros and Devil Rays, and one fewer than the Pirates, Cardinals and Yankees.

"I check out those standings. It's pretty cool," reliever Chad Cordero said. "We're not 'the worst team in baseball' anymore. Knock on wood."

For the Nats, the knock on wood part always is essential. They're the team that always seems to hang by its fingernails yet somehow survives -- so far. In a sense, that's the core of this season for the Nats: find out which players have the resilience to survive under the worst of conditions. Because those are the people most likely to flourish when times get better for the Nats.

From the beginning of spring training, Acta and the Nats devoted themselves to identifying team leaders, emphasizing strong character and hoping that the team would develop internal chemistry. Little did they know how soon it would be needed.

On Opening Day, Acta lost his starting shortstop and center fielder for five weeks. Now, four of the team's five starting pitchers are on the disabled list. Almost everything that could sink a team's attitude has befallen the Nats. They started the year 1-8, then they lost eight in a row to drop to 9-25.

"Those two losing streaks probably helped us," Cordero said. "We still kept our heads. We proved we could come back. We all knew it would be a rough season. If we lose by 10 runs, we're still going to come out the next day and battle."

Acta was tested quickly. And passed. "Manny talked to us twice when we were going badly," right fielder Austin Kearns said. "He didn't come in here and blow us up. He builds your confidence. Everybody is on the same page. We lose some games, but we bounce back. We have short memories and we have fun. We actually think we should have a few more wins than we do."

The Nats are best appreciated for their resilience. As Cordero says, "We lost big, huge guys from last year's team." Yet it hasn't mattered. Last week, in one of their periodic displays of utter offensive hopelessness, the Nats were shut out back-to-back by Brad Penny and Derek Lowe by a combined score of 15-0.

Yet the very next night, the Nats scored 11 runs, then won on a walk-off hit the following evening. "I don't think we've given up in a game all year," left fielder Ryan Church said. "That comes off Manny. There's just something about him. What's the word for the thing that a leader has? Whatever it is, he's got it."

A third of a season hardly is enough to judge. But every week, Acta shows more aspects of his feel for the game. He's in tune. Yesterday in rain and mud at RFK Stadium, the Nats lost their second straight game to the Padres, 7-3. Acta immediately identified the only issue of importance: Nobody got hurt. "With that [dangerous] field, I did a lot of praying," Acta said. His starting pitcher, Jason Simontacchi, shortstop Cristian Guzman and first baseman Dmitri Young all were coming off recent injuries. One more loss meant nothing. Staying healthy enough to continue to field a facsimile of a team was everything.

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