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How bad can it get?

With the season little more than a week old, I wish to apologize for my prediction that the Washington Nationals would finish 58-104 -- I must have been hallucinating to suggest such success.

Make that 38-124, putting the Gnats right down there with abject predecessors like the 1962 New York Metsies (40-120) and the 2003 Detroit Pussycats (43-119).

Heck, maybe even the 1899 Cleveland Spiders (20-134) are catchable.

Although it seemed somewhat exciting at the time, too bad Dmitri Young had that game-winning hit that capped a ninth-inning rally against the Florida Marlins on Wednesday. Otherwise, the Nats would be 0-7 and a third of the way toward matching the Baltimore Orioles' 21 losses to start the 1988 season.

And that was before Peter Angelos, the maestro of bad baseball in Charm City, bought the O's.

Wherever Frank Robinson is these days, he must be thanking his lucky stars and offering up hosannas that he no longer manages the Nats. F. Robby, you'll recall, was the Orioles' skipper for the last 15 of those losses in '88, and nobody should have to suffer two streaks like that in one lifetime.

Perhaps you think I'm exaggerating the Nats' plight and blight. Then why are the ghosts of Cal Ripken Sr., Jay Tibbs and Mickey Tettleton hovering over the Nats' dugout?

We all knew this was going to be a difficult season at RFK Stadium, but now that's looking like the understatement of the year. Yesterday was easily the Nats' second best day of the new season -- they were off. Tonight they'll show up in Atlanta, presumably, and reports indicate the 5-1 Braves are so confident they might ask John Rocker to pitch.

Or maybe Hall of Famer Warren Spahn. He's deceased, of course, but he might be able to beat the Nats anyway for career victory No. 364.

(Hmm, I wonder whether Walter Johnson is available -- he's been stuck at 417 victories since 1927. But no, I'm sure the Big Train wouldn't pitch against a Washington team.)

Ever since spring training began, first-year manager Manny Acta has been the most upbeat bloke since Norman Vincent Peale, who wrote a best-seller called "The Power of Positive Thinking" about a half-century ago. But now Manny's mantra is beginning to sound hollower than a politician's promise.

On Sunday, after the Nats were swept by the Arizona Diamondbacks, Acta insisted, "We're going to be fine." This prompted calls to the commissioner's office to ascertain whether the team might be shifted en masse to, say, the Class AA Eastern League.

Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, the face of the franchise, seemed equally deluded, saying, "There's no reason to panic or change anything."

Maybe Zimmerman is still in a state of shock over losing the 2006 National League Rookie of the Year Award, inexplicably, to Marlins shortstop Hanley Ramirez. Hey, Ryan -- just in case they didn't teach you this at UVa, the object of the game is to win!

Sorry, I shouldn't be so hard on Zimmerman, because he's the best reason -- maybe the only reason -- to watch the Nats right now. True, we ought to be happy just to have major league baseball in town again, except what Our Guys have played so far is merely an unreasonable facsimile thereof.

Going to the ballpark, basking in sunshine, slurping suds and scarfing hot dogs -- it's the American Way. Besides what other sporting options do we have? We could concentrate on watching the sadly depleted Wizards lose in the first round of the playoffs, worry whether the Capitals might can Glen Hanlon and bring back one of the Murrays (Brian? Terry? Anne?) as coach or ponder whether Joe Gibbs will return to NASCAR after next season and thus enable Dan Snyder to toss obscene bundles of coaching gold at Bill Cowher.

None of these sounds like much fun. Better to hope Nick Johnson will return in midseason as a bona fide cleanup slugger, John Patterson will rediscover the mound magic that made him so effective in 2005 and closer Chad Cordero will get a chance to protect a ninth-inning lead one of these weeks.

"Hope" is the operative noun here, and let's cross our fingers that "forlorn" isn't the operative adjective. Perhaps the most upbeat thing for Nats fans to consider is this: The season ends Sept. 30, and that's only 173 days away.

In the meantime ... Cleveland Spiders, beware.

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