No Cure for an Ailing Acta

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 25, 2008

Manny Acta felt sick yesterday afternoon, but it was just a head cold, nothing serious, and so the Washington Nationals manager decided to shrug it off, coach his team, and bear witness to a different sort of malady. Assessing his condition pregame, Acta was all sniffles and coughs. The color drained from his face. But he could manage, no problem: "I just woke up with a sore throat," he said. "I'm okay. I'm fine. Don't worry about me."

Then, after pausing for a beat, he demonstrated his foremost qualification. "I can lift my right arm," he said.

Acta trains himself to see blessings, not sad ironies, but it just so happened that 49 minutes after the first pitch of last night's game against the Florida Marlins, the manager left his perch inside the Washington dugout, ascended four steps, strode to the pitcher's mound, and -- with one arm motion -- removed his starter from a game that was already lost.

In Washington's 9-4 loss to the Marlins at Nationals Park, little went well and few felt well. The manager was under the weather, the left side of the usual Washington infield was out because of the flu, and the Nationals responded with a drowsy effort.

Pitcher Tim Redding (10-11) departed after 2 2/3 innings and seven runs -- a futile bid, in his final chance of the season, for a career-high 11th win. Midway through the third, Washington already trailed 7-0, a deficit left to the caretaking of long relievers. By the top of the fifth, righty Jason Bergmann was coming in and the fans were heading out. But for Acta's occasional clapping and Roger Bernadina's fourth-inning circus catch -- a dolphin-like dive for a liner heading to the warning track -- the final stages of Washington's second-to-last home game of the season unfolded in silence.

On this night, the hope fizzled fast. Redding's first pitch crossed the plate knee high and exited the park via the red seats in left center, courtesy of Hanley RamĂ­rez. Redding's third pitch of the game was pounded into right, a Cameron Maybin double. His fourth pitch of the night, to Jorge CantĂș, resulted in a hit-by-pitch.

By the third inning -- when Florida added five more runs, all charged to Redding -- Washington's 30-year-old righty had reached, at once, his season's endpoint and its low point. On May 19, Redding notched his sixth win. In his final 22 starts, he won just four times. At no moment earlier this year was his ERA higher than what it finished at last night, 4.95.

Acta, too, is finishing the season with a different perspective -- and not just because he's sick, or because his team is one loss away from its 100th of the season. The second-year manager has guided this year's team with unwavering steadiness, answering its failings with patience and more patience. His creed is simple, though sometimes criticized for its rigidity: He wants to minimize the highs, minimize the lows. Even when he himself is feeling his worst.

"If I would have been a loose cannon here, then I would have had a lot of criticism, too," Acta said. "I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is to try to keep everybody happy, and I have done a lot of research when it comes to coaching and stuff, and players want somebody who can inspire in them calmness, security, and that's what I try to do. I try to let my guys know that everything is under control, and we're going to be fine.

"If I start jumping up and throwing stuff around when things are not going good, they're going to see right through me, I'm not going to change because of people's perceptions. This is who I am."

All season, Acta has adamantly presented the bad moments with optimism: A veteran's injury is a young player's chance. A losing streak is a learning experience. A center fielder's misplay is part of a promising player's growth.

Acta has even painted this season as something worth extending, not ending. The translation: Even the most sickly baseball is still, well, baseball.

"Dude, I wish this season was 12 months," he said. "People with real jobs work 12 months out of the year. I don't care. I love it. I love this. I don't know what else to do."

After this game, Acta, still sniffling, sat behind a microphone to answer questions. First one was about his team's early deficit. He started to answer, then stopped.

"This isn't working," he said, pointing to the mic. Somebody hustled over to fix it. Acta sniffled, cleared his throat, and then resumed talking.

"Well, regardless of how many people were sick," he soon was saying, "you didn't know you were going to be trailing 7-0. You have to go into the game positive and thinking you're gonna get it done. What am I going to gain by being negative and getting myself down because I'm down in the game? Is there anything to gain? I don't think so."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company