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A Veteran Voice Emerges in Nationals Clubhouse

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By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, April 7, 2009

MIAMI

There are bad Opening Days, terrible season debuts and then there are total, all-purpose stinkers like the 12-6 loss that the Washington Nationals suffered Monday against the Florida Marlins.

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Ace-by-default John Lannan got shelled for six runs in three innings, including two home runs. Lastings Milledge looked lost batting leadoff and played a long fly ball by ex-Nats speedster Emilio Bonifacio into an inside-the-park home run. Hanley Ramírez had a grand slam and five RBI -- just his usual game against a pitching staff, and coaching staff, too, that has no clue how to cope with him. Free agent Adam Dunn misplayed the first fly ball hit to him in left field into a double, starting Lannan's demise, then took a called third strike in his first at-bat.

Then, after this ghoulish game was in the books and the quiet Nats locker room was emptying, an unusual, almost unique thing happened. Somebody tried to act like a leader. Dunn, who rebounded from his bad start with a resounding game -- an RBI-double to left that the wind kept in the park and a three-run, 430-foot homer that landed 25 rows up the right field stands -- held court just as veteran stars on winning teams are supposed to do. Preach calm. Make a few jokes. Needle teammates.

"This is a young team. They're just really excited to get the new season started. You never want to lose, but if we were going to, I'm glad it was like that," said Dunn, who has six home runs and 15 RBI the past five Opening Days. "Everybody will get their focus back. You'll see a different team tomorrow . . . I'm glad that one is over. This is not how we are going to play this year."

As Manager Manny Acta is the first to acknowledge, the Nats have not had any semblance of a senior presence, an established star, a voice when things go bad, in his two years as manager. Ryan Zimmerman was tapped for the role -- by default, just as Lannan was made the staff ace even though he won only nine games last season. And, though dutifully thoughtful and articulate, Zimmerman never took to the role.

"That's not Ryan's way, to be real outspoken," Acta said. "Adam said he wants to do that. He never had a chance in Cincinnati. So, we'll see."

You have to listen to learn. And for eight seasons in Cincinnati, Dunn listened to veterans such as Barry Larkin and especially Ken Griffey Jr., the consummate needler. Junior learned the patter, the tone, the big-league way to react to anything and everything, including a slaughter on Opening Day, from his dad. And his father picked it up from yapping Hall of Fame friends on the Reds and Yankees.

Is Dunn a fit for the job? Nobody knows. In Cincinnati, where he was booed and berated for his fielding and whiffs, he was never viewed as a leader by a prickly town of baseball purists. But who else is there? The Nats have a starting rotation that includes three established nine-game winners and two 22-year-old rookies, plus a bullpen with a closer who has nine career saves and a lineup in which no one hit more than 14 homers last year.

So, step right up, Adam. What damage can you do?

For his fielding gaffe, he took responsibility. Did he lose it in the sun? "No, I didn't think it was hit as hard as it was. I froze, decided to charge. That wasn't the right decision."

Was he "happy" to get the first homer as a Nat out of the way so soon? Okay, perhaps that's a novel question to ask a man who ranks just behind Alex Rodriguez and just ahead of Albert Pujols for homers (205) the last five years.


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