- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 17, 2007

How about Manny Acta as manager of the year, or at least of the late spring? OK, so it’s only mid-June, but this 38-year-old rookie skipper has the Nationals playing better than anybody thought they would or could.

Remember all those preseason laments that his motley crew would lose 110, 115 or 120 games? The Nats are 29-39, a .426 pace that projects to 69-93 for a full season, not exactly calamitous under the circumstances. So relax, Casey Stengel of the 120-loss 1962 Mets and Alan Trammell of the 119-loss 2003 Tigers — your hard-earned incidences of ignominy appear safe from assault.

Of course, nothing is certain in rounders except that games will take too long and fringe players will earn too much. Before we start planning parades for Manny and the Nats, let’s recall the classic collapses of two previous Washington teams.

The so-called “Wondrous Nats” of 1949 won nine straight games on an early season western swing, actually were rewarded with a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, then finished 50-104 and oh-so-dead last. Their expansion successors of 1961 were 30-30 in late June, then dived to 31-70 the rest of the way. As baseball people constantly remind us, it’s a l-o-n-g season.

But so far, so good — at least for a franchise that is building for the future, Manny’s Nats are respectable, which really is all we can ask.

If you’re looking for irony, consider the difference between Acta’s employment position and that of good guy Sam Perlozzo down the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. After the Nats completed a three-game sweep of the Orioles on Thursday night, the clubs had identical records. Yet Perlozzo shouldn’t send out his laundry, or perhaps even board a team bus, without checking first with owner Peter Angelos and his minions.

How precarious is Perlozzo’s job? When he was ejected in the eighth inning Thursday for arguing a third-strike call to Jay Payton, a man in the Camden Yards press box noted, “Maybe Sammy’s trying to get an early start on unemployment.”

Someday Acta could be on similarly shaky ground — nearly all managers are sooner or later. For now, however, the Nationals practically consider him Connie Mack, John McGraw and Joe McCarthy wrapped up in one. And no wonder.

Since their 9-25 start, the Nats are 20-14 — and this with three of their best starting pitchers and their first baseman on the disabled list. When I visited Manny in his office the other night, I kept looking for mirrors. Instead, all I found was the boundless enthusiasm and optimism he seems to pass on to his troops.

“Absolutely, I’m very happy because the guys seem to have taken to what we’re trying to mold here, the right way to play the game,” he said. “When we started badly, I told them every team goes through slumps, and ours just happened to come at the beginning.”

So, Manny, how would you grade your performance?

“I wouldn’t — but I’ve got a good bunch of students.”

General manager Jim Bowden, Acta’s immediate boss, doesn’t mind grading him.

“I give him an A+,” Bowden said. “He’s the brightest young manager in the game. I’d compare him to Jim Leyland when I was with the Pirates and we hired him [in 1986]. Manny has tremendous leadership skills, and he knows how to deal with people. He’s the main reason this clubhouse is the way it is [meaning harmonious and upbeat].”

Acta gets another ringing endorsement from bench coach Pat Corrales, a former manager of the Phillies and Indians who is nearly twice as old as Manny: “I make suggestions, but he makes the decisions. He’s done a great job — keeps everybody involved and sharp, and he’s done a good job handling his players.”

How about that, Brian Schneider?

“For sure,” the gum-chomping catcher agreed. “At the beginning of the year, when the last thing we needed was to get down, he didn’t panic and he was always positive.”

And despite two shellings in Toronto so far this weekend, there is reasonable hope that matters will get better. Starters John Patterson, Shawn Hill and Jason Bergmann should come off the DL soon, and perhaps first baseman Nick Johnson will be fully recovered from his broken leg sometime this summer.

Meanwhile, position players like Dmitri Young, Ryan Langerhans, Nook Logan and Robert Fick continue to make contributions while Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Church, Austin Kearns, Felipe Lopez, Cristian Guzman and Schneider lead the way. On the mound, unknown starters Jason Simontacchi, Micah Bowie and Matt Chico are somehow turning in quality innings and starts and handing over most games in good shape to setup man Jon Rauch and closer Chad Cordero.

These Nats are fun to watch because everybody likes overachievers — and the manager deserves a large chunk of the credit.