- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 2, 2008

Manny Acta arrived at Nationals Park Friday afternoon, the stench of a 5-19 July still fresh in his mind but the promise of a brighter August keeping the Washington manager in an upbeat mood.

The changeover in months provided an opportunity for both Acta and the Nationals as a whole to cleanse themselves from the mess they created and start anew. For Acta, that meant tossing out his old fungo bat, getting a new pair of shoes and a haircut. For the Nationals, that meant ridding themselves of underperforming veterans Paul Lo Duca and Felipe Lopez and handing things over to a new, younger roster.

“You can’t erase all the losses we had, but that’s the way I’m approaching it,” Acta said. “I’m glad July is gone. It’s a July to forget. That’s the way I look at it. It’s a new start for us to take a look at these kids, the future, and go from there.”

Washington’s resulting 5-2 victory over the Cincinnati Reds may or may not have been the beginning of a new, winning phase to this lost season, but it did have a different feel to it.

An overhauled lineup boasted three new starters who weren’t even on the roster Thursday: left fielder Elijah Dukes (activated off the disabled list) and infielders Emilio Bonifacio and Alberto Gonzalez (each acquired in trades over the previous week).

Those three newcomers (all age 25 or less) combined with 23-year-old catcher Jesus Flores to stake the Nationals to an early 5-0 lead. And thanks to 7 1/3 brilliant innings from veteran left-hander Odalis Perez, Washington had its first win in 10 tries and a crowd of 30,572 had plenty of reason to cheer for the first time in a long time.

“It’s only a day,” Acta said. “But I feel already better than July.”

The Nationals entered August with both a new look and a new mentality. Gone were Lo Duca and Lopez, released late Thursday after general manager Jim Bowden was unable to find any willing trade partners. Added to the roster were Bonifacio (the second baseman acquired from the Diamondbacks for closer Jon Rauch), Gonzalez (the shortstop acquired from the Yankees for minor league pitcher Jhonny Nunez) and Dukes (who made a faster-than-expected recovery from knee surgery).

All three made immediate contributions.

The speedy Bonifacio, who will be given a chance to lead off the rest of the season, laced an RBI single and stole second base. Gonzalez had a double and two walks. And the duo, former teammates in Arizona’s farm system, turned in some stellar defensive plays that had the clubhouse buzzing postgame.

As one player put it: “How many plays were made tonight that wouldn’t have been made the last two?”

Dukes had perhaps the biggest influence offensively on the outcome of this game. Making his first appearance since suffering tears in his right knee July 5, he went 2-for-4 with a key two-run double.

“He’s remarkable,” Acta said. “The fact that this guy was able to be playing rehab assignment games three weeks later after that knee surgery, and then to be able to go out and do what he did today his first game back? He’s a very special talent.”

Said Dukes: “I’m just fortunate to be able to be a quick healer. I pride myself on working hard and staying in the game. I don’t want to waste any time.”

Dukes, 24, was one six players in Washington’s starting lineup Friday age 26 or younger. Once third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, 23, returns from a bruised right hand in the next few days, the lineup’s average age will drop even lower.

The Nationals (39-70) may still lose 100 games, but the clubhouse vibe following Friday night’s win suggested that, if nothing else, the next two months will be more entertaining and productive than the last four were.

“We’re going to give the kids an opportunity, and we’re going to stick with the people that give us the best effort out there,” Acta said. “We’re going to take a look at the guys who might be part of this for a long time.”