Words Fail to Stem Nats' Woes

Home run king Barry Bonds enjoys the view from RFK's visiting team dugout; he didn't play but the Giants won anyway.
Home run king Barry Bonds enjoys the view from RFK's visiting team dugout; he didn't play but the Giants won anyway. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 1, 2007

The door to the Washington Nationals' clubhouse closed about 4:15 yesterday afternoon, and a meeting months in the making began. The idea is simple, Manager Manny Acta said. The heat has broken, football is starting up, but don't be fooled. There is a month of baseball to be played, and how the Nationals play it could determine futures.

Last night, the Nationals closed August with their seventh straight loss, a listless 3-2 decision to the San Francisco Giants, who won despite keeping Barry Bonds on the bench in front of 25,169 at RFK Stadium. Thus, the Nationals welcome September this morning with the possibility of matching their longest losing streak of the season.

Acta has no interest in that, no interest in allowing a three-month stretch in which Washington played .500 baseball to be overshadowed by a late-season collapse. At one point, surpassing last season's total of 71 wins seemed probable. Now, the Nationals are on pace for 70. Reaching even that total is anything but certain.

"We have to stay focused," Acta said. "It's not about getting on guys that didn't play defense or guys that couldn't hold the lead, because those guys are going out there trying to do their job.

"It's just about staying focused and finishing the month strong, not [slacking] off and making sure that not everything that we put into this season for six-and-a-half months, counting spring training, goes out the drain in the last month of the season. Because this game is just like life. What have you done for me lately?"

The meeting lasted all of 10 minutes, and players emerged neither shaken nor transformed. Acta has held two closed-door meetings before -- one in Atlanta in the midst of a 1-8 start to the season, one in Pittsburgh when the team had dropped five straight at the end of June, when there was still half a season to play.

Yesterday's get-together came after a grueling road trip that ended with six straight losses, the last three by one run. The players said they understood the message.

"For a month to go, you don't want to just kind of lay back and let everything go to waste," right fielder Austin Kearns said. "I don't think guys will do that, but it's just making sure."

Kearns is one of the players who might not need reminding. After suffering through a horrendous first half -- one in which he slugged .369 and drove in all of 30 runs -- he has righted himself recently. In the fourth inning last night, he hit a line-drive solo homer to left off Giants starter Kevin Correia. That was his seventh since the all-star break; he had just five beforehand. He is now hitting .415 (22 for 53) in his last 15 games, perhaps salvaging a season that seemed lost.

There are others, though, who might be headed in the other direction. Right-hander Tim Redding worked his way into the conversation about next year's rotation by rattling off nine starts in which he posted a 2.53 ERA following his July 3 call-up from Class AAA Columbus. But last night, he labored in throwing 104 pitches in five innings, walking five men. His last two starts have featured 10 walks in nine innings.

"If you ever wanted to know what would happen if a guy doesn't throw strikes, the last two starts are a perfect indication on what you're going to get," Redding said. "You're going to get a lot of runs scored early in the game and a high pitch count before a lot of innings are thrown."

One walk contributed to the Giants' rally in the second inning, when they scored all the runs they would need. After Pedro Feliz fisted a double down the right field line to start the inning, Redding walked Omar Vizquel. David Ortmeier followed with a dribbling ground ball through the right side for the Giants' first run.

Then, perhaps the key play: Correia laid down a bunt; Redding bounded off the mound to field it.

"My first initial reaction was to go to third," Redding said. "That's what we cover in spring training."

Yet third baseman Ryan Zimmerman was charging, and he couldn't get back to the bag.

"We had the number one play on," Zimmerman said. "You're not supposed to get the guy at third on that play."

Acta said, with the pitcher running, Redding should have tried to turn a double play by throwing to second. Instead, after a popup by Dave Roberts, Rajai Davis broke his bat on a grounder down the third base line. The ball snuck by Zimmerman for a two-run double, and the Giants had a 3-1 lead. After Kearns's homer in the fourth, the Nationals managed one more hit -- Ronnie Belliard's leadoff double in the seventh.

But Belliard didn't even advance 90 feet, and the Nationals gathered in the clubhouse with Acta's words still fresh in their minds. The season might be at the point when it feels the longest, but there is still a long way to go.

"I'm not going to remember whoever did whatever they did in May in the seventh inning with two outs," Acta said. "I'm just going to remember my freshest memory."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company