By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 26, 2008
Without a win, the words meant nothing. Without a win, the 35-minute, closed-door clubhouse meeting that preceded yesterday's game would have fizzled -- a message, unanswered.
But because of Jesús Flores, their 23-year-old catcher, the Washington Nationals ended a 5-4 win last night against the Los Angeles Angels with celebration, not deflation.
In the bottom of the ninth, Flores snapped a tie by waiting on Scot Shields's outside breaking ball and lashing it against the right-center field fence. By the time Los Angeles right fielder Robb Quinlan grabbed the ball, Elijah Dukes had scored, and the Nationals had rushed from their dugout, turning the infield into the stage for a sprawling mosh pit of joy.
In that moment, on the infield, 36-year-old Paul Lo Duca -- who lost his starting job to Flores this season -- embraced the young catcher. "That's a professional at-bat," Lo Duca told him.
Then, the Nationals poured back into the clubhouse, feeling a far different emotion than they had hours earlier. For one thing, they felt relief. Relief that they had responded to their first formal closed-door meeting of the season with an emphatic turnaround. Relief that they had overcome the seventh-inning failure to capitalize on a bases-loaded, no-outs scenario. Relief that they hadn't been undone by a blown two-run lead.
They felt other things, too. Manager Manny Acta felt gratified that the youngest members of a down-the-road nucleus each contributed. Lastings Milledge blasted a two-run homer in the first inning, pumping his fist while circling the bases. Dukes (2 for 3) scored the winning run. And Flores -- who Acta said "doesn't get rattled" -- overcame an 0-for-4, three-strikeout start to give the Nationals the ending they needed, one that avoided a series sweep and snapped a four-game losing streak.
Flores, for one, had felt the need for such a meeting. When the players arrived at the ballpark yesterday, they had won just one game in their past eight. But a whiteboard in the clubhouse caught their attention: "Meeting 4:15," it read.
The meeting was a strike against the status quo. In the previous eight games, Washington's play, especially its defense, ranged somewhere between listless and torturous. On Tuesday night, the team committed four errors. A compilation of lowlights from the prior week would have shown a montage of balks, balls sailing over heads (sometimes thrown underhand) and balls skidding off of gloves. Acta knew part of the reason for his team's defensive decline was unavoidable; the Nationals' top three fielders, Nick Johnson, Ryan Zimmerman and Austin Kearns, all were injured.
That's an excuse for a drop-off, but not a total decomposition.
"Enough was enough," Acta said. "We just wanted to make all these guys aware that you can't get complacent just losing. We miss those guys, but still, we're not throwing independent league guys out there, and I felt like they were better than that."
For more than half an hour, the team listened. Acta didn't yell. "He's not that kind of guy," Milledge said. Acta later compared the environment of the meeting to a school classroom.
The manager's main talking points, according to the manager and numerous players, were simple: Without superstars, the Nationals needed to compensate. They needed to back up bases, play smart defense and watch out for one another. Only one player, Lo Duca, spoke up, telling players, as he later recalled, "We need to not play for paychecks, [but] play for pride."
At one point, Acta even mentioned Flores by name, applauding the way he had taken advantage of his opportunity for playing time.
"He knows we can do better," Flores said.
"We're not playing good ball, but we're not this bad," Milledge said. "We're better than what we've displayed. That's what he said, really."
"It was about taking care of the team, the next guy," Acta said. "The catcher throws the ball in the dirt to second base, block the ball, don't let it go to center. Take care of the whole team instead of thinking about how many hits I'm going to get, how many innings I'm going to pitch."
Calling for a team meeting, of course, invites a certain risk, given that it's often the option of a team that has just one option left. When a manager closes the clubhouse doors, whatever happens next comes weighted by a new gravity. But since taking over as the Nationals' manager on Nov. 14, 2006, Acta has perfectly handled the risk of last resorts. Three times last season he called meetings. Each corresponded with -- or perhaps triggered -- a turnaround. One ended a six-game losing streak. Another halted a five-game losing streak. In September, a final clubhouse talk before a game against San Francisco helped bury a seven-game losing streak.
This one triggered the end of a four-game skid. And as a result, the Nationals had a moment to cherish. Flores, speaking about the hit that capped the victory, called it "a great feeling."