Nationals interview Mets’ Acta

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ST. LOUIS — Manny Acta became the latest managerial candidate to interview with the Washington Nationals yesterday, and there are indications the New York Mets third base coach is one of the organization’s top choices to replace Frank Robinson, especially now that Joe Girardi and Terry Pendleton are officially out of the mix.

Acta, 37, met with general manager Jim Bowden, team president Stan Kasten and members of the Lerner family in Washington, becoming at least the eighth person to speak with the club in the last three weeks. And more names will be added to the list. Baseball sources said the Nationals have received permission from the Philadelphia Phillies to interview John Russell, manager at Class AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

Acta, who is also a candidate for managerial jobs with the San Francisco Giants and Texas Rangers, is considered one of the game’s top up-and-comers. He has no major league experience, but he managed the Dominican team at last spring’s World Baseball Classic and has built a strong reputation around the game.

Acta also is familiar with the Nationals organization. He was Robinson’s third base coach in Montreal from 2002 to 2004, where he worked with roster members Brian Schneider, Nick Johnson, Jose Vidro, John Patterson, Chad Cordero and Jon Rauch, among others. That said, he has no ties with the Nationals’ current management team of Bowden, Kasten and the Lerners.

“It went very well,” Acta said by phone last night. “They’ve got a very good situation there moving forward with a young team and the new ballpark. I’d love to get the chance to work with them.”

This has been a whirlwind week for Acta, who interviewed in Texas on Friday, one day after his Mets lost Game 7 of the National League Championship Series to the St. Louis Cardinals. He was in San Francisco on Monday to meet with Giants GM Brian Sabean and immediately boarded a plane for yesterday’s interview in Washington. He’s scheduled to leave for Japan Sunday to serve as a coach on a touring team of major league stars and doesn’t know when he’ll get definitive word from any of the clubs he’s interviewed with.

“That’s OK,” he said. “Obviously, I’ve gotten the chance to interview with some other clubs. And if they don’t work out, I’ve still got a good job with the Mets.”

The Nationals have gone to great lengths to keep their managerial search private — Bowden hasn’t spoken publicly since the second-to-last day of the season — but sources familiar with the process said Acta is being given strong consideration for the job, and it appears he and New York Yankees first base coach Tony Pena are among the leading candidates.

Speculation for the last few weeks had centered around Girardi, who was fired after only one season with the Florida Marlins. But Girardi withdrew his name from consideration on Monday, meaning the likely NL Manager of the Year won’t have a major league managing job next season.

Though Girardi, 42, appeared to be a strong candidate, sources said the Nationals were never close to offering him the job and he likely never was their top choice.

Pendleton, too, was thought to have a legitimate shot at the job, but the Braves hitting coach (who prefers to remain in Atlanta) yesterday pulled himself out of the search.

Several other candidates who met with Bowden and Kasten are no longer in the running, either: Lou Piniella, who took the Chicago Cubs’ opening, Houston Astros bench coach Cecil Cooper and Chicago White Sox third base coach Joey Cora. Former Cubs manager Dusty Baker spoke with the Nationals but doesn’t appear to be in the mix.

Washington is likely to continue adding names to the list and probably won’t announce a hiring for several more weeks. The latest addition is Russell, who has never been a major league manager but like Acta has been seen as a manager-in-waiting for some time.

Russell, 45, spent this season managing the Phillies’ top farm club and prior to that spent three years as third base coach of the Pittsburgh Pirates and eight seasons managing in the Minnesota Twins’ minor league system.

The former big league catcher is also a candidate for the Rangers’ job.

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