Will the Skipper Be Back At the Helm?

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, September 24, 2009

With the Dodgers clinging to a 14-2 lead over the Nationals on Tuesday night, the press box announcer said, "Hu is pinch hitting."

Then he started laughing.

"I don't know -- third base," rattled off one reporter.

"I don't give a darn -- Oh, he's the shortstop," said another.

At least the scribes are still on their game. They know their Abbott and Costello "Who's on First" routine.

What do the Nats know?

Right now, not much. If you had "Dodger series" in the Nats' 100-loss pool, you look like a winner. With a record of 52-99 with 11 games left after Wednesday's comeback win, the Nats don't even know who their manager will be next season.

The decision whether to retain Jim Riggleman will be made right after the end of the season -- in two weeks. The Nats would just as soon keep Interim Jim. It's the path of least resistance, a favorite Nats tactic (patent pending). He's done a decent job, compared with Manny Acta (26-38 vs. 26-61).

In one 51-game stretch, Riggleman had the Nats playing almost .500 (24-27), but then Nyjer Morgan got hurt, two more starting pitchers joined the "season's-over" brigade, and suddenly September became strictly about salvage operations.

Nonetheless, if the team goes in the tank badly enough in these final days -- and they are working on doing just that, losing six of their last seven games entering Wednesday -- they could still unseat the hometown Riggleman. He's in exactly the same nervous position as Dave Trembley in Baltimore.

The biggest factor in Riggleman's favor, and it will probably prove decisive, is that no bad team wants to oust a perfectly capable caretaker manager until the franchise is on the verge of better days. If you're lucky, the caretaker works out better than expected and you keep him. If not, he's easy to fire. You name your glam "manager of the future" just in time for him to benefit from all the suffering the previous manager endured.

Nats President Stan Kasten often gives the example of his decision in 1990 to name Bobby Cox manager of the Braves. "Were we good enough yet?" Kasten said. "If you think you know who your long-term manager will be, why waste his good will?"

The Nats already thought Manny Acta might be that manager. The last drama the Nats want in 2010 is an Acta II. Suppose you bring in a hot shot -- a known "name" such as Bobby Valentine, who may be politicking for the job from Japan, or a prominent coach such as the Dodgers' Don Mattingly, whom Joe Torre calls "ready" -- and then the Plan rolls snake eyes again? What then? Suddenly, the list of people who want to run the Nats can drop fast.

With all this as context, Riggleman seemed likely just two weeks ago to be ready to move smoothly into the '10 job. But the Nats never make anything easy. Even good news can be double-edged. Out of the blue, rookie shortstop Ian Desmond, 24, who had been in the minors for six years, exploded into the picture. And Riggleman, faced with a touchy situation, didn't handle it successfully.

Spectacular but erratic in the field, often injured and never the hitter many thought he would become, Desmond suddenly hit .306 in Class AA, then .354 in AAA and finally 10 for 17 to start his big league career in Washington. That included a 460-foot homer that almost became the first ball to be hit out of Nationals Park.

Bad teams need baseball miracles. Was Desmond one? You absolutely have to use September to find out. But the Nats had a problem: Cristian Guzm?n, who made $8 million this year and will make $8 million next year, too. A man with a .307 on-base percentage and declining range at shortstop should do whatever his team needs. The Nats told Guzm?n he might move to second base next season. He said he was shocked.

Guzm?n is proud, simple and, in his mind, a shortstop. So, Riggleman tried to placate him.

To save Guzm?n's dignity, the manager put Desmond at positions he had never played as a pro: first at second base, where he survived, then in right field on a sunny day in New York, an invitation for disaster. Then, to make things worse, after Desmond made the last out of the top of the seventh inning in a 1-1 game, Riggleman, normally a crisp in-game tactician, left Desmond in right field, a brutal mistake.

Of course, the ball found Desmond after just two pitches. He played a routine line drive into a leadoff double. John Lannan ended up losing a chance at his 10th win. Riggleman should have said, "That loss is on me. I took a gamble. It blew up. I put the kid in a spot to look bad. I cost our best pitcher. My fault."

But he didn't. The next day, Sunday, the Nats looked flat. Connected?

Players evaluate managers, too. Does he take blame as well as give it? Does he make the best decisions for the team or play favorites? The Desmond-to-right-field fiasco might be a bit of both. After the Sunday loss, Riggleman told his team he didn't think they played with energy, which is code for "Don't quit on me now, boys. It's almost over." A 100-loss season is like a six-month toothache. Was the Novocaine of a new manager wearing off?

Well, in their next game Tuesday night, they showed him -- with their worst loss of the year. It's hard to be on a 107-loss pace, yet not lose any game by more than 10 runs. But the Nats had done it. Then, to start a nine-game homestand, they did a remake of "Night of the Living Dead." Every time the Dodgers hit a ball, the Nats chased it, stiff-legged, arms in front of them, like ghouls.

Afterward, Riggleman said that effort wasn't a problem. "The Dodgers were the problem," he said. And that's probably right. Everybody looks awful in a blowout.

But the customers notice. And the brass. In the late innings, fans in the box seats still wore their Nats hats. But they weren't happy.

"This isn't even college ball," said Dave Ostrander.

"We're season ticket holders from Day One in RFK. We often bring our 2-year-old daughter," said Tom Trendl.

"She'll see them win," said his wife, Jennifer Kaplan, "in 20 or 30 years."

With even a little luck, like the Dodgers' misplays on Wednesday that helped the Nats overcome a blown save and get a walk-off 5-4 win instead, the Nats and Riggleman will get through this touchy patch with all the late-season raw nerves on South Capitol Street. Nothing helps a manager like a home-plate celebration.

After all his years of dedication, his 1,239 games as a big league manager, Riggleman shouldn't have to prove that he can drag a bad team to the finish line with their dispositions and morale still intact. But he probably does.

Just don't ask the Nats: Who's the manager?

Everybody knows the manager was Abbott.

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