By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, June 26, 2008
With his team physically disintegrating and mentally unraveling around him, Nationals Manager Manny Acta called an intense 35-minute team meeting last night, just one game shy of the midpoint of the Washington season. There, with everybody bunched together on chairs, more like a school class than a team in a huge "Oval Office" clubhouse of a $611 million ballpark, Acta tried to turn back the clock, and the attitude, to another place and time -- 2007 in funky, filthy RFK.
With Nick Johnson out for the season, with Shawn Hill headed to the disabled list, with the return of Ryan Zimmerman, Chad Cordero and Austin Kearns still in the future and with his young squad's mental blunders multiplying by the week, Acta tried to turn the scrappy underdog script of last year into a desperation rewrite for '08.
Can a team's identity, its sense of itself, be entirely reworked after 80 games? Can a humble message -- we aren't this bad -- be retooled on the fly to awaken an often brain-dead team?
Last season, Acta held only three meetings, but losing streaks of five, six and seven games immediately were broken. The entire '07 season, in retrospect, hinged on those firm but upbeat discussions of what was expected. This was meeting No. 1 of '08. And, at least one more time, the Nats were activated immediately, beating the Angels, 5-4, on a walk-off single by Jesús Flores, 23, the young catcher whom Acta put in the cleanup spot in this game for the first time in his major league career.
Manny magic? Well, a bit of it. But at a still abysmal 31-49, much more is needed.
"I told them, 'We can be better than that.' We're not independent league players out there," said Acta, who then reiterated the entire list of humble fundamentals that were the backbone of last year's close-knit, appealing 73-89 team that finished the year 63-63.
"We sat together and talked like a family. . . . Hit the cutoff man, back up bases, do all the routine things. You can have zero talent and do all those things. That's what we did last year. We can't sit back and say such and such will hit a bomb with two men on and we'll be okay. We have to do all the little things. That's how we have to play until we become a powerhouse."
Of course, this raises troubling questions. Powerhouse or not, even great teams should -- and often do -- play this way, including the current Red Sox and the team-first, crisp-as-a-drill-team Angels of Mike Scioscia. Why did the Nats, including Acta, deemphasize basic fundamentals and unselfish play as soon as the franchise added a few (supposedly) more talented offensive players? Did Acta forget his own success? Or did he want to tread softly with some of his newer -- and touchier -- players?
Why did he finally call this meeting so late into the season? Last year's first major sit-down came at 1-8 in April. "Enough is enough," explained Acta, whose team played a game on Tuesday that was so offensive to those who respect the sport that some paying customers left the park by the third inning, not because the Nats trailed 8-0, but because the way they were playing literally was not worth watching. (At least that's why we left.)
Because Acta preached the basics so relentlessly last season, he may have forgotten that his new players never heard his riff-on-a-loop while others, prone to forgetfulness where unpleasant tasks are concerned, conveniently forgot the whole lecture series.
"I thought I didn't have to say all those things so many times," Acta said. "They didn't hear all my 1,000 preach-and-teach like last year. They only heard 200 times."
Memo for '09 and every year after: Manny, make it 1,000. They never want to hear.
"Every team makes mental errors every night," Acta said, defending his team's Tuesday debacle. "Some of our young players will have to learn up here [in the majors]. We're going to have to live with the bumps."
Acta then listed the progress of his team's four impressive 23-year-olds, praising southpaw John Lannan (3.34 ERA), catcher Flores (.294 with 28 RBI in 136 at-bats), right fielder Elijah Dukes (.330 in last 20 games) and center fielder Lastings Milledge, who homered in his second straight game last night.
To emphasize his sense of the team's long-term future, Acta batted Dukes, Milledge and Flores at Nos. 2-3-4. Could they, along with Zimmerman, also 23, remain in the heart of the order, in various arrangements, for many years? "That's what Jim [Bowden] and I always talk about -- the combinations with them, plus everybody when they get healthy."
To underline Acta's prescience, Milledge opened the scoring with a two-run homer. Dukes walked and Milledge singled, then both scored in a two-run sixth. Dukes gunned down a runner at the plate with a powerful peg to end the third inning. And, in the ninth, Dukes led off with a single, took second on Milledge's grounder and waltzed home on Flores's single, smoked up the right field gap to the wall. An Acta diagram?
"For all the losses we take," Acta said, "things like that ease the pain."
And make no mistake, the Nationals franchise has been in pain, an aching that no one game will assuage. Attendance is passable but below expectations, with this game's crowd of 29,180 almost exactly the season average, despite glorious weather and a park that, if anything, wears better the more you see it.
Internally, the Nats fear that, if Acta's message of smart team play doesn't take hold quickly, a truly ugly season could emerge. "I hope we don't lose 100," one member of ownership said.
Even if 100 losses would fetch the high draft pick next season that many assumed the Nats would have this year, it could cause considerable collateral damage. Fans feel jilted. New ballpark buzz dwindles. Free agents lose interest in taking your money.
"This is the tough time. If you are going to build a team properly, this is when you have to persevere and stick to what you are doing," team president Stan Kasten said. "Nobody wants to hear about your injuries. Nobody cares."
For example, on Tuesday the Nats had a catcher (Paul Lo Duca) in left field, a left fielder (Willie Harris) at second base, a second baseman (Ronnie Belliard) at third base and a designated hitter (Dmitri Young) at first base.
"So what? Of course, it's not what we thought we'd be this year," said Kasten, speaking in a tunnel under Nationals Park. "But are we this?" he said, his voice reverberating loudly. "No, we're not."
Less than three months ago, the Nats began their season with Zimmerman's walk-off homer to inaugurate an acclaimed park in a symbolic scene that many in this town have awaited for decades. It seemed almost too good to be true. Now, it turns out that it was.
As the Orioles, and the second half of this season, arrive this weekend, the Nationals face a brutal task. Can they take one team meeting, one walk-off win, plus the memory of last season and use it to reverse the course of a season that has been falling to pieces?
The odds say "No." Manny says "Yes."