By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 15, 2008
NEW YORK, May 14 -- Three hours before the Washington Nationals played their 41st game of the season, Manager Manny Acta walked in front of a bathroom mirror in the visiting manager's office and lathered his head in a rich foam. With a razor, using the same technique that Carlos Delgado once taught him, Acta shaved the stubble from his head. He was ready for a clean start.
Head fully Mr. Cleaned, Acta then turned to his next cleanup job -- the team outside his office door. Around this time last year, the Nationals had evolved from a deficient team into a capable one; Acta wasn't sure why. "It just happened," he said.
That's why the hours that followed Wednesday night's 5-3 victory against the Mets at Shea Stadium felt like something worth leaning on. For one of the first times all year, the Nationals -- more talented than last year's team, and more disappointing, too -- provided a glimpse of their fullest potential. They tied the game in the sixth inning when their franchise cornerstone, Ryan Zimmerman, walloped a home run to the second deck. They took the lead when one of their top prospects, 23-year-old Jesús Flores, smoked a run-scoring single. They protected the lead when their alleged team strength, the bullpen, closed the final three innings for starter Tim Redding (5-3).
"That's an A-1 team effort there," Redding said.
Several times this year, Acta had explained his persistent optimism for this team by noting the year-to-date progress. After all, 2007's team began with a dreadful 9-25 tailspin.
Still, any discussion of 2007 must in turn acknowledge that right around this time last year, the Nationals found the groove of extended competence. From May 11 on, they played .500 baseball. They regrouped in a way that this year's team may struggle to replicate.
Granted, the season's one-quarter mark comes with no special designation. Like most other moments in baseball, it simply gives way to a just-as-important tomorrow. Question is, does this year's team ever find the occasion to equal the turnaround from 2007? Already, the Nationals have obstacles. Their closer's arm is weakened; their first baseman's wrist is splinted and taped; their franchise cornerstone's bat, at least before this series, appeared ice-cold.
Problems between 2007 and 2008 have flip-flopped. Last year for game No. 40, Washington started Levale Speigner, now a relief pitcher with Class AA Harrisburg. Now, four starting pitchers, Redding included, form the structure of a reliable staff.
This time around, the offense is the problem. Washington entered Wednesday second-to-last in batting average (.235) and second-to-last in slugging percentage (.354). The averages of Lastings Milledge, Zimmerman, Nick Johnson and Austin Kearns all wallowed between .245 and .201. These four players had combined for 93 percent of all starts in the No. 2 through No. 5 lineup spots; their collective slumps are the easiest explanation for how Washington's offense lost its claws.
But the effort Wednesday energized Acta.
Redding, who retired the first nine hitters and allowed only a solo home run to New York catcher Brian Schneider? "Outstanding," the manager said.
Flores, who provided a 2-1 lead with his single in the seventh and later scored with a headfirst slide? "Had the key at bat of the game," Acta said.
Luis Ayala, one of three relievers to finish things off? "Huge," he said.
The Mets had started this game with Claudio Vargas, who had pitched most recently against the Class AAA Fresno Grizzlies. But when he exited with one out in the sixth, the 48,259 at Shea gave him a steady ovation. His replacement, Aaron Heilman, did nothing to merit similar appreciation. He summarily allowed one walk, three hits and three earned runs.
"I was just really pleased for that big inning," Acta said.
After the game, which lifted the Nationals' record to 17-24, Acta again was asked about this team's potential to lift its play. On his desk he had a copy of Norman Vincent Peale's book, "Six Attitudes for Winners."
Had Peale needed to juggle numerous young outfielders, patience surely would have been one of them.
"We started so slow," Acta said, "and now we have some injuries, too, so we'll just have to keep working hard and hopefully things can get better. We're still ahead of where we were last year, but we're not satisfied with that."