Nats Continue to Play Well Under Riggleman, Win Fourth Straight

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 29, 2009

MILWAUKEE, July 28 -- Seventy-five games: That's what Jim Riggleman was given. He inherited a last-place team and an interim title and a window of opportunity so brief that it scarcely resembled an opportunity. But Riggleman, too, inherited freedom -- the chance to use 75 games however he liked, because what's the worst thing that can happen? The games end, and he goes home without a job.

The job has been his for only 13 games now, but already, distinctly, the Washington Nationals are Riggleman's team. Counting Tuesday night's 8-3 win against the Brewers at Miller Park, the Nationals have won six of eight and four in a row, matching their season high.

They are playing polished, professional baseball -- which under Manny Acta existed only as a speculative possibility. They reflect the influence of a skipper who pushes them through daily infield drills, who dismisses youth as an excuse -- "Our lineup isn't that young," Riggleman says -- and who chats with them for several minutes after every game, highlighting under-the-radar details after wins, chewing them out after sloppy losses.

"Through talking to them," Riggleman said, "I think maybe they realize that I'm certainly not going to quit, so they better not quit."

Two weeks into Riggleman's managerial tenure, he's had several postgame talks -- Tuesday's included -- rich with things to commend. His team is taking extra bases on balls in the dirt, hitting cutoff men, working counts. In this second game of the Brewers series, Nyjer Morgan -- batting .389 (35 for 90) since coming to the Nationals -- started the game with a home run, a poke into the right field corner. Adam Dunn blasted his 26th homer of the year, a 445-foot shuttle launch that one-hopped the concourse, sailed through an open window beyond a billboard and kicked into the parking lot.

As starter Collin Balester (six innings, five hits, no walks) held Milwaukee to two runs, the Nationals erupted for five in the top of the fourth, helped by a two-out, two-run double by Morgan. By night's end, everybody in the lineup but Alberto González had at least one hit. More important: They all shared a good vibe.

"We're making it fun," said Morgan, who went 2 for 5 with three RBI. "We're back to being kids, I guess."

"Since Riggleman took over, I think you've seen an attitude change in the clubhouse," relief pitcher Joe Beimel said. "I think with Riggs taking over he's been super-positive, and he's told everybody that without a doubt we're going to turn it around. [Acta] wasn't a big talker. He talked to us once in a while, but maybe this is what the team needed. We have a short little meeting after every game now whether we win or lose, and maybe guys at first didn't really get it or didn't want to do it. But now I think it's been a pretty positive thing."

For Riggleman, the postgame talks serve a dual purpose. After losses, he wants to be visible in the clubhouse, "just showing them that we lost that game. I lost it, they lost it, we lost it." He lingers less after wins. He points out what would have otherwise gone unnoticed. Then he leaves the fun to the players.

In the last two nights now, Washington has scored a total of 22 runs, ripped 25 hits and connected for six homers. Again, the runs arrived in bunches. Washington unlocked a 1-1 game in the fourth with Dunn's homer off Carlos Villanueva (a reliever making his first start of the season), then loosened a close game with four more hits and three more runs in the frame.

Balester, relying on flyball outs and the standard Morgan ball-hawking in center, made it through six innings. Then, in the eighth, Cristian Guzmán turned a 5-2 game into an 8-2 laugher with a three-run homer against Tim Dillard, who contributed four innings of relief work after Villanueva was pulled.

Washington's fourth win in a row tied the team's best stretch this year under Acta (June 17-20), but established a new high point for goodwill. Those in the clubhouse gawked while recalling Dunn's homer, which was retrieved by a kid camped out in the player's parking lot. ("Once he hit it, everybody was screaming," Balester said.) Dunn, meantime, struck a deadpan response. Asked how many previous homers he'd hit out of stadiums, he said, "I think a couple, actually."

Following the game, Riggleman spoke to his team only briefly. At some point, once the operation is humming, he even intends to abandon the talks altogether -- because he feels that too much talk turns the ears deaf. On this night, though, he simply informed a few veterans that they wouldn't be playing the following day. And then he reminded his team, "Let's keep playing sharp defense and crisp baseball. And let's get some more wins."

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