By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 5, 2007
Manny Acta heard all the predictions, as did every single member of the Washington Nationals. History, perhaps, was to be made at RFK Stadium this summer, because the Nationals had a hodgepodge pitching staff, they had no bona fide slugger and their best player was just 22 years old. They were told they could lose 120, maybe even 130 times, threatening the all-time record.
But in the sweltering heat of August, the Nationals provided the latest evidence that they never had any intention of paying attention to all that. Behind two homers from that 22-year-old, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, they thrashed the St. Louis Cardinals, 12-1, last night and now have a season-high five-game winning streak.
"There's a lot of people around here," catcher Brian Schneider said, "who won't let anybody get down."
Zimmerman -- who drove in the game-winning run in the bottom of the ninth Friday -- showed that his uneven first half is now behind him by hitting a solo shot into Section 446 in the fourth, starting a five-run inning. He then absolutely scalded a ball to left-center in the sixth, a two-run blast that landed just below Section 451, giving him the first multi-homer game of his two-year career.
Throw in a two-run homer from Schneider in the seventh, and the Nationals scored more runs at RFK than they had in any other game all year. They even left Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa to turn to infielder Aaron Miles to pitch the eighth, the defending World Series champs reduced to waving a white flag against the hapless Nationals.
Record-setting ineptitude? Not here, not now. The Nationals would have to finish the season 10-40 to lose 100 games. They not only aren't the worst team in baseball -- a distinction firmly held by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays -- but they are threatening to move out of last place in the National League East. Had the Florida Marlins not come back to beat Houston in 12 innings last night, the Nationals would have pulled into sole possession of fourth for the first time since April 20.
"We're aware of all that," right fielder Austin Kearns said. "But really, we're just happy to be playing the way we are."
Acta said that with his team now 50-60 on the year -- four NL teams have worse records -- opposing clubs might find it hard to believe the Nationals have their sights set on .500. For Acta, that objective was there from the first day of the season.
"I don't think we have ever deviated from that plan," Acta said. "That's always been our goal here, even when we were playing very poorly at the start of the year. That's our plan. And still, up until we have an 'X' next to our name, we're going to go hard and play as hard as we can."
That has been Acta's outlook since he became the Nationals' manager last November. Tell him he can't end up anywhere but last, and he would say, invariably, to talk to him in October. Somehow, he guided the Nationals through a miserable first week in which they won only once, then righted them after a 9-25 start.
Now, since May 11 -- a day when promising right-hander Shawn Hill left a start with shoulder and elbow problems -- the Nationals are 41-35. That was just part of what has become the norm for this bunch. Watch one pitcher go down, call up someone most baseball fans have never heard of, and have him excel.
"Regardless of who we've been putting out there, they've done the job," Acta said.
Last night it was Joel Hanrahan, a 25-year-old right-hander who made his debut last week at Shea Stadium against the Mets. A career minor leaguer, he carried a shutout into the sixth inning. Last night, he again worked into the sixth and allowed one run before wilting in the oppressive heat. When reliever Saul Rivera worked out of a jam in the sixth, Hanrahan was left holding the scorecard from his first major league win.
"Obviously, being in the minors for so long, you wonder if you've got the stuff to get here and get it done," he said. "I kind of felt like I proved a little bit to myself, and it feels good."
Zimmerman doesn't have to prove anything to the Nationals, who want to build their franchise around him. His teammates, even as he scuffled through much of the first half, believed he would come on.
"He has unbelievable talent," infielder Felipe Lopez said.
It's starting to show. Before the all-star break, Zimmerman hit .253 with 45 RBI in 88 games. In 22 games since, he is hitting .337 with 15 RBI.
"It seems like every year some big-name guy at the beginning of the year struggles, like Manny Ramirez or Ryan Howard," Zimmerman said. "And by the end of the year, everybody's like, 'I guess he's going to hit .280 with whatever those guys hit home runs and RBIs.' Baseball's baseball. . . . Players are who they are."
Thus, Acta answered a question about Zimmerman's performance by saying, "That's him."
Who, exactly, the Nationals are will be determined in the next 50 games. But as center fielder Nook Logan said, "This is fun right now."