Resilient Nationals Top Indians
Monday, June 25, 2007
By the time Chad Cordero headed out of RFK Stadium on Saturday night, carrying the weight of a game-blowing three-run home run with him, Manny Acta had already spoken with him. No tongue-lashing. No pep talk. Just an uncomplicated message.
"Hey," Acta remembered telling his closer. "Back at it tomorrow."
A last-place team spends more time thinking of tomorrows than those division leaders who yuck it up over all the winning streaks. But over the course of a first half of the season that has brought a laundry list of moments in which they might have flung their hands in the air, Acta's Washington Nationals have instead dug in. Yesterday, they were at it again, fending off the disappointment of Saturday's last-inning loss with a crisp, concise 3-1 victory over the Cleveland Indians, one started with Jason Simontacchi's solid six innings and capped by Cordero's ninth-inning save.
Thus, in a weeklong homestand, the Nationals were blown away by the Detroit Tigers in a gruesome three-game sweep, yet responded by taking two of three from Cleveland. It is precisely that kind of rubberized persona that Acta, in his first year as a major league manager, is trying to engender in a group that doesn't stack up with baseball's elite. In the meantime, though, Acta figures he can create some Teflon toughness in his team.
"From the get-go, from the very beginning of the season," Simontacchi said, "he's said, 'We're not rebuilding. We're here to win -- flat-out. We're going to be patient. We're going to be positive.' And that's how it is."
Simontacchi and Cordero are this week's case studies. When we last saw Simontacchi, he was trying to shrug off a ridiculously poor start against the scalding Tigers -- three innings, 10 runs -- on Tuesday night.
"He's a very positive, upbeat type of guy," Acta said. "But he's also a thinker, which at times can work against you."
So Simontacchi got together with his catcher, backup Jesus Flores, to discuss the Indians even before they got to the park yesterday morning. The 33-year-old journeyman pitcher from California and the 22-year-old rookie catcher from Venezuela are, of all things, roommates. After arriving at RFK, they continued their discussion on the Indians with starting catcher Brian Schneider, who had the day off after facing Cleveland the first two games of the series.
The message: Don't overthink things.
"We've got a game plan," Simontacchi said. "Let's stay with it."
That helped Simontacchi to a six-inning outing in which he allowed four hits and walked one, the only damage being Franklin Gutierrez's solo homer in the fifth. The performance steadied Simontacchi, whose ERA dropped to 5.81 -- a number that would be a more palatable 4.47 without the explosion against the Tigers. The main difference between yesterday and earlier in the week?
"The end result," Simontacchi said.
But to get that result, Cordero would almost certainly have to face the Indians again, to immediately put behind such a fresh memory -- his inability to protect a 3-1 lead in the ninth on Saturday, when he gave up a pair of singles that were followed by Victor Martinez's three-run homer.
By the ninth yesterday, the Nationals had scored three times off Cleveland starter Jake Westbrook. Two of the RBI came from Flores, who hadn't driven in a run since May 13, and who entered the game in a 1-for-23 skid. Relievers Ray King, Saul Rivera and Jon Rauch allowed only one base runner in the seventh and eighth, and that got the ball to Cordero again.
Late Saturday night, after his closer had allowed a win to become a loss, Acta had wished for the same situation a day later. "Ask and you shall receive," Acta said. The first batter Cordero was due to face in the ninth was Indians third baseman Casey Blake, who had singled the day before. The next man up would be Martinez.
"You just go to the guys, and tell them," Acta said, " 'Hey, the sun will rise tomorrow.' "
Cordero left the clubhouse by the time reporters arrived to ask him about the situation, but he clearly tried a different approach against the Indians. He stayed mostly with sliders and change-ups, getting Blake to strike out on a 2-2 off-speed pitch. He then walked Martinez, missing with a 3-2 fastball and allowing the tying run to the plate in the form of monstrous first baseman Travis Hafner.
The crowd of 26,413 was a bit anxious. The Nationals were not.
"That's the best thing about this team," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "We don't ever change. I think that's the biggest difference from last year. People used to panic. With Manny, everything's more laid-back. If we get beat, we get beat. We come back the next day."
So this time, Cordero performed as he would have in Acta's dreams Saturday night, the ones in which he allows himself to envision his players shrugging off poor performances. He got Hafner to hit into a force play -- nicely snared by shortstop Cristian Guzman -- and then induced a game-ending fly ball from shortstop Jhonny Peralta. Poof! The poor result was history, replaced by a save.
"That's the resiliency that Manny brings to the table," said first baseman Dmitri Young, who went 2 for 3 and scored twice. "Shake off what happened last night. Look forward to today's game."
As he spoke, Young stood amid suitcases and equipment bags. The Nationals left last night for a six-game trip.
"Once we get on the plane, this game's forgotten," Young said, "and we got to look at the Atlanta Braves."
Out with what's happened, in with what could happen next. It is Manny Acta's message, and his club appears to embrace it.