For One Night, Life Is Grand

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 25, 2008

During his time with the Washington Nationals, Felipe López's attitude has toggled between reticent and revitalized. Last year, he sleepwalked through a summer of apparent disinterest. When he arrived at spring training, he no longer had a starting job, yet he professed a capacity to remain positive about the situation, and followed through.

Now, López is back as the starting second baseman. "I'm me again," he said late last night. For one evening, at least, he was more than that. With the clubhouse in dire need of a lift, López delivered by driving in six runs, the last four on a tiebreaking grand slam in the sixth, providing a 10-5 victory over the New York Mets that temporarily stabilized a fragile situation.

That López would be the one to provide stability is somewhat staggering. When he failed to beat out Ronnie Belliard for the starting second baseman's job in spring training, his history might have suggested that he would sulk on the bench. He didn't, and since Manager Manny Acta inserted him into the starting lineup seven games ago, he is hitting .357 (10 for 28) and has injected a bit of energy into a group that badly needed it.

"Even when he didn't win the job out of spring training, he never put his head down," Acta said. "He worked hard, had a good attitude. He knew it from the get-go. I told him: 'It's a long season. It doesn't mean you can't work yourself back into the lineup.' "

Now that he has, he's delivering. His bases-loaded, two-run single in the fifth helped the Nationals overcome a 3-0 deficit. His first homer of the year -- and fourth career grand slam -- came off Mets reliever Aaron Heilman with a full count the following inning. He left the batter's box with a hop, and he punctuated it with an emphatic celebration at home plate, where he was greeted by teammates and cheered by a crowd of 29,750.

All that helped overshadow the myriad issues surrounding the Nationals. Acta knows how his team, which has the worst record in baseball, is being monitored. The record shows the Nationals won for the fourth time in 20 games last night. Acta prefers a different perspective.

"We have won two out of the last three, okay?" he said.

That much is true. But had López not come through, and had the Nationals not tacked on three more runs in the seventh, the day might have been remembered for other transgressions. The original lineup card posted on the wall of the home clubhouse at Nationals Park included Lastings Milledge in center field, hitting fifth. When the Nationals finished batting practice, Milledge had been replaced by Willie Harris in center, and Acta had juggled the lineup.

"He showed up late to work," Acta said. Simple as that. The manager said he has three rules that pertain to everyone, from a star to the 25th man. Milledge, too, occasionally has seemed disengaged in the clubhouse, in one case on the recent road trip talking on his cellphone from the moment he walked in the clubhouse -- the last player to arrive -- to the point he was fully dressed in his uniform, some 20 minutes later.

Milledge declined to address the reason for his tardiness. "It was something I couldn't control," he said. "I take full responsibility."

Acta was adamant that Milledge be held responsible.

"Go ask Jim Bowden, Stan Kasten and the Lerners what would they do to me if I showed up late for work," Acta said. "I told you guys that he's got things to learn, and some of that is being able to know how to handle 24 hours in the day."

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