With Nats Stuck in Neutral, Acta Tries to Rev Up Engine

"I just didn't really have a feel for any one of my pitches," said the Nationals' Jason Bergmann, who threw 44 pitches in a six-run second inning. (Photos By Gene J. Puskar -- Associated Press)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 1, 2007

PITTSBURGH, June 30 -- By the time Manny Acta left PNC Park on Friday night, he had made up his mind. Any more of this listless offense, any more of a slow slide toward accepting what folks said about his Washington Nationals before the season, and he would let his men know that it wouldn't be tolerated, and that people are watching.

Thus, when the nadir of the first half of the season came Saturday night with a humdrum, get-it-over-and-hit-the-showers 7-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates, Acta kept the door to the visitors' clubhouse closed for 20 minutes. There was one voice, that of the 38-year-old first-year manager who had watched his club play with nearly anybody for the better part of three months, but now is flailing, loser of five straight and 11 of 14. The Nationals now are a season-worst 16 games under .500.

"I just want to make sure," Acta said, "they don't get comfortable."

Throughout an offseason in which the front office slashed payroll and prepared not for 2007, but for the future, prognosticators predicted all kinds of horror for this year's Nationals, a group that was widely expected to be the worst team in baseball, and who some thought might challenge the all-time record for futility. But with a solid stretch beginning May 11, when they went 21-14, they left several teams behind them with worse records, and seemed to enjoy defying those morose projections.

Players said Acta, however, made clear during the meeting that accepting mediocrity is not part of the plan to rebuild this franchise. Decisions will be made this season, and they will affect the future of everyone in that room. As veteran Robert Fick said, the message was simple: "Just don't fall into the trap of being a [lousy] ballclub."

Such traps, Acta seemed to indicate, can become self-fulfilling prophecies during stretches such as this.

"That's all he kept saying," left fielder Ryan Church said. "This is an opportunity for us to prove to the coaches here and the management that you want to be here, because everybody's playing for something. This year, it's going to be a test. And they're going to be watching and seeing what guys are doing."

The evaluation, right now, can find few bright spots. Over the first five games of this six-game trip through Atlanta and Pittsburgh that concludes Sunday, the Nationals have scored a total of seven runs. They are hitting .215 in that stretch, and Saturday night went meekly against Pirates left-hander Tom Gorzelanny, who allowed two runs and five hits in 7 1/3 innings, a period in which he never seriously was threatened.

Nationals right-hander Jason Bergmann, meantime, had his worst outing of the season. It featured a six-run second inning -- a frame in which he threw 44 pitches and allowed more runs than he had in any of his starts. With the way the offense is going, six runs is far too many to overcome.

"He just didn't have it," Acta said, and Bergmann -- making his second start since a six-week stint on the disabled list -- couldn't argue.

"I just didn't really have a feel for any one of my pitches," he said.

Nor did any one of the Nationals have a real feel at the plate. Take out second baseman Ronnie Belliard (.299) and first baseman Dmitri Young (.337) -- the players who drove in Washington's runs against Gorzelanny -- and the Nationals have no one in their lineup hitting better than .257.

"Right now," Acta said, "we're just in a big funk offensively."

That alone, however, was not enough for him to call the meeting. Rather, he said, it was "an overall type of process." It is that point of the season, with the halfway mark reached Sunday, when it can seem as if there's little for which to play but still three months to go. Shrugging off long stretches of substandard performance won't be tolerated, players said.

"Really, the game pretty much spoke for itself," Acta said. "It's been the same thing over and over and over, and I just don't want the guys to fall into that routine."

The players seemed to think the timing for such a message was appropriate. Mainstays such as Ryan Zimmerman (2 for 4 Saturday), Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez are not performing up to their capabilities. Acta, though, did not call anyone out by name, didn't single out one or two players. He didn't scream, didn't raise his voice, didn't kick anything over.

"He's professional about it," Church said. "That's why Manny's Manny. He's got his own way of getting the point across. I think he did. He doesn't have to go about yelling and screaming and throwing things."

The point, though, is a serious one.

"It doesn't matter who we are, how much money we make, if we're the Mets or the Nationals, the Braves or the Nationals," Fick said. "We've shown we can play with those teams. We've shown we can play good baseball, and we just haven't been doing that for the past 10 games. We had something going so good, and I'm sure he's a little frustrated."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company