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Doors closed for Nats after loss

- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 12, 2007

ATLANTA -- Jim Bowden, by nature, is not a patient man.

The Washington Nationals general manager's career has been littered with impulsive roster moves, whether it's sending a struggling outfielder to the minors, claiming a recently dumped pitcher off waivers or consummating a trade from his front-row seat at the ballpark.

But these are different times for the Nationals, and because of that, these are different times for Bowden. His club is floundering on the field. Last night's 8-3 loss to the Atlanta Braves was its eighth in nine games this season and the Bowden of old would have responded to such horrid play with some kind of roster shakeup.

"Sure, there's no question," he admitted yesterday. "But we all know what our plan is. It's completely different. So you have to have patience, and you have to take some lumps with the young players."

So while the Nationals were stumbling their way through their sixth straight loss before 15,631 at Turner Field, Bowden remained calm. So did his manager, Manny Acta, who continues to espouse patience, no matter how tempting the alternative is.

"It's not hard for me, because that's the way I am," Acta said. "Nobody lied to me; I knew what I was getting into. I love the plan here. ... I'm patient and I'm positive, and I'm not going to jump to the negativity that's surrounding this ballclub."

Don't confuse the manager's patience with a lack of desire. He has started sporting a goatee and vows not to shave until Washington wins another game. And following this latest loss, he decided for the first time to close the clubhouse doors and speak to his entire team.

Acta, admittedly not a fan of team meetings, didn't raise his voice or throw anything across the room. He just calmly stressed to his players the need to start playing better before it's really too late.

"Every team in the big leagues is going to go through this once or twice, and some teams are even going to go through it three times," the manager said. "It's just our turn to go through it at the beginning of the season. ... I didn't raise my voice that high. I got my point across, that's all."

Whether Acta's upbeat message produces positive results remains to be seen. There's only so much he can do with the ballclub he has been given.

Offensively, the Nationals have been anemic (they were on their way to a second-straight shutout last night before rallying for three runs in the eighth). Defensively, they've committed the most errors (11) in baseball. And on the mound, they've been the victims of either ineffective starting pitching or poor relief work.

The latter was on display last night. Starter Jerome Williams made it through five innings allowing only two runs, but the Washington bullpen surrendered six more over the final two innings (three apiece off Ryan Wagner and Jon Rauch).

Without that late implosion, the Nationals' three-run rally in the eighth might have given them the lead. Instead, the late offensive outburst proved meaningless, and the club's stunning streak of ineptitude (they haven't held a lead at any point other than the final moment of their one walk-off win) remained intact.

"The worst thing we can do right now is to hang our heads and feel bad for ourselves," catcher Brian Schneider said. "There's no excuses. Just go out there and start playing better baseball."

Williams (0-2) kept his team in the game despite walking the leadoff man in three of his first four innings. The two runs off the right-hander came on Chipper Jones' first-inning homer to right.

If only Williams had received any run support from his teammates, who once again were completely shut down by the opposition's starting pitcher. The star last night was Chuck James, a second-year left-hander who had the Nationals flailing away as if he were the ace of the Braves' staff.

Four of their five hits off James (2-0) came with two outs and little hope of a rally developing. By the time the Nationals strung together four consecutive hits off reliever Rafael Soriano in the eighth, the game's outcome had been decided.

So Acta closed the doors to his clubhouse afterward, gathered his players together and tried to instill some confidence in them. They might yet fulfill all those predictions of a historically bad season, but Washington's rookie manager won't let thoughts of such disaster trickle through his players' minds yet.

"I'm not going to accept losing until Sept. 30 or October," he said. "If I go to the All-Star break 1-81, then I might say, '[Dang], I think we might be as bad as people are saying.' But that's just not me, I'm sorry."

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