Acta Manages to Get Nats a Win, Ending 9-Game Losing Skid

Wily Mo Peña's misplay allows Atlanta to get within one. The play, originally scored a hit, was changed to an error.
Wily Mo Peña's misplay allows Atlanta to get within one. The play, originally scored a hit, was changed to an error. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 14, 2008

Long after the Washington Nationals mercifully ended a nine-game losing streak yesterday evening -- beating the Atlanta Braves, 5-4, in a sometimes-harrowing decision -- General Manager Jim Bowden burst through the door to the coaches' locker room just off the home clubhouse at Nationals Park.

"Manny!" he screamed to his manager, one Manny Acta. "One in a row, baby! On a streak! The lead's down to three and a half."

Such developments can lead to faux frivolity, and, indeed, the last-place Nationals find themselves 3 1/2 games out of first place in the National League East, even after a 10-day period in which they failed to win a game. Acta, though, is unmoved by such developments. "I don't have all that burden," he said.

He does, though, pull the levers that run the team. And yesterday, in a situation in which his fragile club badly needed to win, he pushed each button on the control panel at the correct time. He got only five innings from his starter, right-hander Tim Redding. But on the first day closer Chad Cordero was active for a game, Acta pieced together the final 12 outs by using five relievers -- coaxing his team through the ninth, when the Braves loaded the bases and threatened to deliver a devastating loss.

"Obviously, Manny knows what he's doing," catcher Paul Lo Duca said.

That the Nationals took a 5-0 lead after three innings meant little given the current state of the team. The losing streak, the longest since baseball returned to Washington, began with the club blowing a 5-0 lead on April 3 in Philadelphia. Sure, Braves left-hander Tom Glavine departed before he retired a batter because of a strained right hamstring, and Atlanta had to turn to its bullpen in the first. Yes, the Nationals drew a pair of bases-loaded walks in the second off reliever Jeff Bennett -- one from Ryan Zimmerman, another from Austin Kearns -- and then got an RBI single from Aaron Boone to pad the advantage in the third.

But when Redding began to give way in the fifth -- allowing a two-run homer to Chipper Jones, then a double to Mark Teixeira -- the gears started churning.

"It's a tricky part," Acta said.

Since early in the morning, Acta said, he knew he would follow Redding with right-hander Saúl Rivera in a close game. He also knew he wanted to work in Cordero, just back from a season-long bout with shoulder tendinitis, at some point -- though likely not to close. But with no one out and Teixeira on second in the sixth, the left-handed hitting Brian McCann was up.

"We wanted to stop it right there," pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. "That was kind of, for us, a save [situation] right there."

St. Claire and Acta are in constant contact during such taxing times. The decision at that point: Go with Ray King, the only lefty in the Washington bullpen, to face McCann.

"There, to me, was the turning point of the game," Acta said. "If McCann would've gotten a hit in that situation, then things could've gotten out of hand earlier. . . . With our struggles right now, I didn't want the guys to start [saying], 'Oh, here we go again.' "

King came on, and on his third pitch, McCann hit a groundball on which second baseman Ronnie Belliard made a nice play, falling into center field as he threw McCann out at first.

Thus, King has retired eight of the nine left-handed hitters he has faced this year. He has, however, allowed six of nine right-handed hitters to reach base. So Acta used a double-switch to insert Rivera, who gave up a sacrifice fly against the right-handed hitting Jeff Francoeur but nothing else in his 1 2/3 -inning stint.

"The scoreboard kind of tells who, what, when, where and why," King said. "I think a lot of guys have accepted that. The best thing about the guys down there is everybody wants the ball."

Yesterday, though, was dicier than normal. The idea was to work Cordero into a comfortable spot. But due up in the eighth inning of a 5-3 game: Teixeira, McCann and Francoeur. So the idea: A 1-2-3 inning from Luis Ayala would allow Cordero to pitch the ninth -- a save situation, albeit against the bottom of the Braves' lineup.

"But things got complicated," Acta said.

They were complicated by the fact that, with one out and Francoeur on first, left fielder Wily Mo Peña -- in his first game after returning from a strained oblique muscle -- dropped a sinking liner hit by Mark Kotsay. "It's an error," Peña said, and though it was originally scored a hit, that's what it ended up. It also cost the Nationals a run. Francoeur motored in all the way from first to make it 5-4.

Ayala worked out of further trouble, but Cordero thus needed to pitch a perfect ninth to avoid facing his nemesis, Chipper Jones. With two outs, Cordero missed with a 3-2 fastball to Yunel Escobar, bringing up Jones.

"The situation got kind of tough," Acta said. But he stuck with Cordero. Jones -- 6 for 15 against Cordero -- yanked a double to right. Cordero was left to walk Teixeira intentionally, loading the bases.

"I just kind of wish I would've been able to stay out there," Cordero said. Acta, though, came and got the ball. Rauch awaited. His record against the next hitter, McCann: eight at-bats, no hits. Why?

"I don't know," Rauch said. "I don't want to jinx it."

Rauch threw one pitch. McCann hit it hard in the air, but Kearns tracked it down. The last lever had been pulled, the last button pressed, and for the first time in 10 days, Acta could shake hands with his coaching staff, and smile.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company