Aybar's RBI Double Gives Rays Win Over Nationals

Washington Nationals pitcher Ross Detwiler delivers to the Tampa Bay Rays during the first inning of a baseball game Sunday, June 14, 2009, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco)
Washington Nationals pitcher Ross Detwiler delivers to the Tampa Bay Rays during the first inning of a baseball game Sunday, June 14, 2009, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco) (Brian Blanco - AP)
By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 15, 2009

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla., June 14 -- On Sunday, for perhaps the final time, Manny Acta sat in the manager's office and called it his own. This wasn't his office -- it belonged to every visiting manager who passed through here -- but still, its decorations remind the few who use it about the preciousness of their jobs. On a wall, 24 photos hang in a grid: headshots of every manager who will visit Tropicana Field this year. For this series, everything here was his. The coffee maker made his coffee, and the mini-fridge held his water and the hangers displayed his jersey and suit.

The office, only as a special case for Acta, also had room for an elephant.

Following a luckless 5-4 defeat against Tampa Bay, Acta presided not only over baseball's worst team, but also the sport's most tenuous job. He boarded the team plane to New York not knowing if he'll be managing the Washington Nationals come Tuesday, their next game. Earlier in the weekend, a Fox Sports report suggested that Acta will be fired sometime this week. Even those who believe a decision has not yet been made think the third-year skipper's tenure is measured in days. "It does not look good for him," one source said.

Before Sunday's game -- before another lead-surrendering, patience-testing, head-shaking loss -- Acta sat back in his manager's chair. An 8-by-10-inch glossy photograph, taken on the day of his introductory news conference in November 2006, sat on the desk. Some autograph seeker had passed it along, hoping for a signature. Acta looked down at the younger, beaming face. That was 236 losses ago.

"I don't have a double-chin anymore," he said.

At least until this season began, the manager had lost 10 pounds while on the job. He's gained a few back lately, only because "losing makes you change your diet," he said, and he's suddenly prone to late-night food, all the old vices.

Judged by all other habits, though, Acta has weathered this season without changing. Sometimes, that's the biggest strike against him. ("He makes the right moves out there," bullpen coach Randy Knorr said. "He manages the game the way it should be managed. He's a little laid back. You know, I'd like to see him be a little more emotional. But that's not his personality.")

With Acta's job dangling, a sense of inevitability -- and a day-to-day apprehension -- has fallen on the Nationals. Players have wondered whether they'll walk into Yankee Stadium on Tuesday and see bench coach Jim Riggleman in the manager's office. Some members of Acta's coaching staff have gotten telephone calls from friends and family, who ask, "Will you have a job?"

Two weeks ago, with a day off, the Nationals fired pitching coach Randy St. Claire. That bought Acta some time and temporarily alleviated the pressure. But since, the team has gone just 3-9. Sunday's defeat was the third in a row. The Nationals have now won 16 of 61 games, same as the 1962 New York Mets. They are on pace for somewhere around 120 losses. Their ability to lose is almost mystical. In the finale against the Rays, they summoned help from a bullpen catcher and the third base bag.

In the bottom of the eighth, the game was tied, but 25,841 at Tropicana Field had a good sense of where this was heading, because the Nationals sustain ties about as well as they sustain leads. They'd led each of the prior games this series entering the bottom of the sixth; they'd blown both. Here, a 4-0 lead had crumbled in two parts -- in the fourth, where Tampa converted a pair of Ross Detwiler walks into runs, and then in the sixth, where a pair of Gabes (Gross and Kapler) walked and homered against Detwiler in succession.

The tie flipped into a deficit in vintage Nationals style. For most teams, the bullpen catcher just sits there; he doesn't get in the way of infielders trying to catch pop-ups. For most teams, the third base bag is a neutral little square, not an adversary that turns bouncing grounders into hits. But that's what happened in the eighth, as Ron Villone pitched for Washington.

Carlos Peña had doubled to lead off the inning -- no chicanery there. But then, Ben Zobrist, the next hitter, lofted a shallow pop-up down the left field line. Third baseman Willie Harris charged toward it, and though he probably didn't have a play on the ball, the resulting collision -- he tripped over squatting bullpen catcher Nilson Robledo, who was warming up Joe Beimel -- at least alerted the circus to start playing its music. Zobrist eventually struck out, negating the head-shaking from the Robledo interference, but then another stationary object came along to cause harm.

With one out, Willy Aybar chopped a two-hopper right down the third base line. Harris was there, ready to make the play. But then, the ball kicked off the inside of the third base bag and shot on an angle into left field. Peña jogged home, and Tampa Bay had the go-ahead run.

"The ball, it barely nipped the corner of the base, too," Harris said, shaking his head. "What can you do about a play like that?"

Everything ends with rhetorical questions. The Nationals, despite a cycle of player moves, have been unable to curb their losing. President Stan Kasten, who will be with the team in New York, has called the season "perplexing." Acta entered spring training describing this team as the most talented of his tenure. Instead, it's been the most agonizing.

"We haven't played the way we were expected to play," Acta said. "We're all accountable for what's going on here."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company