Nats Look Like Old Selves in Loss to Cubs

Jim Riggleman, in his first game as interim manager, saw some familiar problems that have plagued the Nats.
Jim Riggleman, in his first game as interim manager, saw some familiar problems that have plagued the Nats. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 18, 2009

Reprinted from yesterday's late editions

Jim Riggleman, newly appointed as the Washington Nationals' manager, subscribes to a theory that managers don't determine many wins and losses. Maybe a half-dozen in a year. Managers, rather, create the environment. And once the game begins, little of the signaling, encouraging, prodding, yelling, pinch-hitting or double-switching will determine how everything unfolds -- or, in the standard Nationals narrative, unravels.

Still, there is a difference between the power of a manager and the power of a managerial change. Teams that switch managers, as Washington did with its all-star break firing of Manny Acta, expect a bounce-back. "I think with any new manager you'll get a little wakeup effect on the team," acting general manager Mike Rizzo said. "When a manager gets fired, it's a reflection on [the players]. I think some players are a little embarrassed that they were playing in a way that got Manny fired."

Riggleman's tenure as interim manager began Thursday night not with a response, but with a resumption. The Nationals fell to the Cubs, 6-2, in front of 26,980 at Nationals Park, and loss No. 62 showed only trace evidence, at best, of change.

Washington, facing Chicago right-hander Rich Harden, didn't get a hit until the third inning and managed only four all night. It faced an early deficit, the result of an unearned run. It wasted a sturdy pitching performance by John Lannan. Its bullpen, hammering the half-built coffin, issued three more runs in the ninth. Riggleman watched from the steps of the home dugout, one knee forward, posed with chin on fist like a Rodin sculpture. His record as interim manager: 0-1.

Did this game feel different than, say, Acta's last one?

"Not necessarily," Riggleman said. "We made a couple mistakes."

"Same stuff," Lannan said. "But we're headed in the right direction."

Lannan turned in his patented effort -- 6 2/3 innings, seven hits, two earned runs -- but he rued a two-out run in the seventh, and couldn't match Harden, who hadn't pitched since July 10, and whose 98 mph fastball came to life during the time off. "He dominated us," Adam Dunn said.

Following this one, players found a few bright spots. Washington's defense saved a run with an 8-2-6-4 putout in the fourth, a play where Bard -- receiving a throw from center fielder Nyjer Morgan -- stared down a runner on third, then froze a base runner caught between second and first, nailing him in a rundown. A fair rendition of crisp baseball, however, only followed an early error from Ryan Zimmerman, and by then Washington was already behind.

The full potential of Washington's defense, in the first half, was left largely to speculation. Fielding was practiced, but good fielding, as a general rule, was not. This puzzled the coaching staff, including Riggleman, who began his interim managerial stint on Wednesday night with a meticulous one-hour session thick with glovework. His hope was simple: With enough work, his team's ability -- buried somewhere in there; he felt sure of it -- could become self-evident.

Still, at least one intractable fielding problem defies logic. Zimmerman, perhaps the team's most gifted infielder, has struggled all year making throws to first base. Give him a ball and a target, and he'll hit it, no problem -- so long as it's not in a game. Zimmerman has committed 13 errors this season, the majority on standard-issue third-to-first throws that either bounce short, carry wide, or sail.

"I just got a bad grip on the ball," Zimmerman said.

Entering the top of the third, the game was hitless and scoreless. But Zimmerman helped change that when Chicago's Koyie Hill one-bounced a grounder to third. Zimmerman snagged it and finessed a soft throw. It took off like a balloon, soaring above the bag -- a two-base error. Though Lannan struck out Reed Johnson for the second out, he couldn't escape the inning unscathed. When Ryan Theriot roped a slider into left the Cubs had a 1-0 lead, and Washington had surrendered its 48th unearned run allowed, worst in the majors.

"I think sometimes Ryan gets in between whether he's gonna pick it up and fire or take another step and throw it on the run," Riggleman said. "I think maybe we saw a little bit of in between there, and it just didn't come out of his hand good. We're just going to put the work in to cut down on that."

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