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Nats Lose, but Begin to See Signs of Swing
Braves 7, Nationals 3

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 22, 2008

ATLANTA, April 21 -- Late Monday afternoon, Lenny Harris plopped himself down on the bat rack in the visitors' dugout at Turner Field. Lumber lay all around him, pine tar at his feet, weighted donuts beyond that, the tools of his trade. Yet Harris couldn't grab a bat himself. His charges, the Washington Nationals' hitters, began to stretch on the field before him.

"Me, I don't feel any pressure at all," Harris said, and he pointed at the field. "Pressure is not from here. This is where you release your pressure, have fun and enjoy it."

At the moment Harris spoke, the Nationals were just more than an hour from beginning a 7-3 loss to right-hander Tim Hudson and the Atlanta Braves, anything but an enjoyable experience. Entering the day, they had a .219 batting average, the worst in baseball.

But the feeling afterward: Had lefty Matt Chico done anything to keep the Nationals in the game -- he allowed six runs in his first three innings -- Washington might have capitalized. How to feel pleased after losing for the 15th time in 17 games, especially when two runners were thrown out at the plate? Crack out a season-high 13 hits -- just not at the right time.

"That's what we're missing, that one big hit," Harris said afterward. "We're missing it every night."

Harris has been in his job as the Nationals' hitting coach for less than a year, a position into which he was thrust because of the personal problems of a seasoned professional, Mitchell Page. Now, Harris -- who had never been a hitting coach at any level -- is charged with guiding a supposedly improved lineup out of a massive slump.

Hudson wouldn't allow it Monday, allowing one earned run in 6 2/3 innings to improve to 6-0 with a 0.87 ERA against the Nationals since the start of the 2007 season. Braves right fielder Jeff Francoeur saved him one run in the first by throwing out Cristian Guzmán at the plate, and shortstop Yunel Escobar saved another in the fifth when he tossed out Felipe López at home.

In the Nationals' world, this is progress.

"Shouldn't be happy losing another game," Manager Manny Acta said, "but the fact that we swung the bat today the way we did made me very happy because that's a sign that better things are coming."

Better things were supposed to come from the beginning this season, and they haven't. After a 3-0 start, the Nationals have scored more than four runs just six times in 20 games, putting a focus on Harris.

"From three games, it didn't pick up like I thought it would pick up," Harris said. "It's a mystery to me when a whole offensive team just goes from doing well to searching to get a base hit. I guess that's a part of baseball. You live and you learn about things."

That is what Acta has said repeatedly during the early portion of this season, that some of the Nationals' younger players are continuing to learn at the major league level. Asked what role a hitting coach can play in that process, Acta said: "All we can do -- not only Lenny as a hitting coach, but everyone on the coaching staff -- is to be supportive and to be positive, and to not let these guys get down, because we're leading this pack here. It's a long season. We can't have long faces."

Even if the players do. On Monday night, left fielder Wily Mo Peña was so down after going 0 for 4 with two strikeouts that Harris said he found him in tears. Harris said part of his job is to pick up guys when they crumble mentally. He took the long view when he said, "It don't really bother me at all," believing the struggles will end. But when he saw Peña, he said, "It pained me." And it's an attitude other Nationals believe won't help.

"You can't have the 'poor me' [approach] or be like that," right fielder Austin Kearns said, "because you'll get kicked around worse if you have that attitude."

Harris's attitude has not been in question, and most of the hitters like his positivity. Yet he wants the group, as a whole, to be more patient. They took steps in that direction Monday night. His chief role, he said: disciplinarian.

"You have to be disciplined," Harris said. "If a guy's not trying to throw you a strike, you don't have to chase it. Ninety percent [of the time] right now, we're chasing everything."

Harris, who collected more pinch hits than any other player in history, also drew clear distinctions between what he sees going on with the Nationals and what he experienced during his career. "I had mentors," he said. He's not sure the younger Nationals do.

"I had baseball guys who felt for the game," he said. "When we came out, we already felt that we were going to win the ballgame. . . . It's hard for me to speak for them. All I can do is see and watch them play, and I see a difference already, because our attitude on the bench was different. Every team we played for, we were always encouraging, always in the game. This is like a different environment now. We got a whole bunch of young kids."

On Monday night, those young kids were a little less lost than in recent days. Yet Chico, who just 10 days earlier nearly matched Hudson, was down 6-0 after just three innings. "Just didn't have command with any pitch," he said.

Thus, he left the Nationals in a position where they had to grind against Hudson. Given that opposition, they couldn't grind out a win.

"It's coming," Harris said. "It just don't come in one night."

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