The doors to the clubhouse closed at a quarter past four and didn’t reopen for nearly 45 minutes, not until Manny Acta had gathered his entire team together and gotten a few things off his chest.
The Washington Nationals manager doesn’t like holding team meetings, but every once in a while he considers them necessary. And after watching his club lose seven of its last eight games - and look quite uninspired in doing so - Acta knew the time had come.
“I think enough is enough,” he said.
Whether Acta’s message of encouragement or veteran Paul Lo Duca’s passionate words of advice had any role in the Nationals’ 5-4 victory over the Los Angeles Angels on Wednesday night - in which catcher Jesus Flores drove in the winning run with a ninth-inning single to right - is debatable.
“You’d have a meeting every day if that’s the case,” pitcher Tim Redding said.
But the prolonged sit-down did seem to strike a nerve with plenty of players.
“I think it jump-started some guys and helped them kind of check the ego or check the attitude of: ‘We’re always losing,’” said Redding, who allowed two earned runs in six innings. “We can’t worry about losing. We need to go out there and try to win.”
Acta’s message was more calming in nature than condescending. His point: Although the Nationals have been besieged by injuries to key regulars this season, the remaining roster can’t use that as a crutch for its performance.
“We just want to make all these guys aware that you can’t get complacent losing,” the manager said. “We know we miss those guys, but still we’re not throwing independent league players out there. We’re better than that.”
Acta did nearly all of the talking after asking his players to pull their chairs up into a central area of the clubhouse. But Lo Duca, a veteran who has never played for a sub-.500 team in his career, felt compelled to deliver a key message himself.
“When you are a losing team or a last-place team, a lot of things get magnified,” he said. “When you don’t hustle balls out or you don’t do the little things to win ballgames, they get magnified. We don’t have the big boppers in the lineup, and we need to do the little things to win. We need to take pride in that and not play for paychecks. I was just reiterating that.”
So the Nationals went out and put forth perhaps their best effort of this 2-4 homestand. They jumped out to a 2-0 lead on Angels starter Ervin Santana with a two-run homer from Lastings Milledge in the first. And though Redding gave back both runs, the right-hander rebounded to retire 10 of his last 11 batters faced.
However, Redding couldn’t earn his first win since May 19 because Washington squandered its 4-2 lead. The Angels tied the score in the eighth on two hits off reliever Luis Ayala and an error by second baseman Pete Orr.
But the reversal of fortunes didn’t faze this club. Elijah Dukes led off the ninth with a single up the middle, moved to second on Milledge’s groundout and then scored the game-winner when Flores lined a 2-1 curveball from Los Angeles reliever Scot Shields (who hadn’t allowed a run in 15 1/3 innings) into right-center field.
The crowd burst into cheers, and the Nationals spilled out of their dugout to mob Flores in the middle of the diamond. The 23-year-old catcher has been one of this team’s lone bright spots during a dismal season. He’s now second on the roster with 28 RBI despite playing half as many games as most of his teammates.
“He doesn’t get rattled,” Acta said. “He doesn’t care about his age, who’s facing him or the situation.”
And thanks to Flores’ clutch hit, the Nationals were able to take their manager’s message from earlier in the afternoon and apply it to a much-needed victory in the evening.
“The guys today played very good baseball,” Flores said. “We were playing against one of the best teams in the American League. I think everybody played hard today.”
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