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A season of lows and woes for Nats

- The Washington Times - Friday, June 27, 2008

Stan Kasten hears the complaints every day. From fans who are upset about the abysmal season his Washington Nationals are having. From media members who pepper the team president with questions about his underachieving squad. From other club employees who themselves want to see something promising.

This isn't Kasten's idea of a good time.

"There's no question that the day-to-day performance, for the last month especially, has been very disappointing," he said. "We feel it more than any fan or person in the media could possibly feel it."

Anyone who has followed the Nationals' 2008 season feels the pain. A team that began the season with a sense of optimism is now feeling as low as it has during any point in that span.

On Friday night, Washington reaches the halfway mark of a season that has seen almost nothing go right. Unable to build off the momentum they established over the final three months of the 2007 season, the Nationals (31-49) find themselves on pace to lose 100 games - an unfathomable thought three months ago when Ryan Zimmerman christened Nationals Park with an Opening Night walk-off homer in front of a sellout crowd.

Since that high point, this team has bottomed out. A spate of key position players, headlined by Zimmerman, first baseman Nick Johnson and closer Chad Cordero, have suffered significant injuries. The young players asked to fill in the gaps have failed to do their part, resulting in the majors' least productive offense. A pitching staff that has tried at times to hold this all together has crumbled under the weight more often than not.

Kasten insists there still is hope of turning matters around.

"Obviously, it's disappointing, all the things that have happened," he said this week. "But we continue to focus on the big picture. And big picture, I'm still as optimistic as I've ever been."

Kasten said this because of the organization's ever-improving farm system, which was devoid of top-tier prospects when he and the Lerner family were awarded the franchise in May 2006 but has since been restocked.

Indeed, the Nationals' top four affiliates (Class AAA Columbus, Class AA Harrisburg, high-Class A Potomac and low-Class A Hagerstown) have winning records. More importantly, they have produced potential building blocks like Collin Balester, Garrett Mock, Jordan Zimmermann, Adrian Alaniz, Cory VanAllen, Chris Marrero, Justin Maxwell and Michael Burgess.

But Kasten, while touting the revamped farm system, said "improvement in the minor leagues is not the goal. It's a milepost on the road to the goal. The goal is to be a championship team up here."

And the major league Nationals as constructed bear no resemblance to a championship club.

Few expected the organization to reach those kinds of heights after overachieving in 2007 to finish 73-89. But optimism was high when this club gathered for spring training, buoyed by last season's progress and roster additions over the winter that included outfielders Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes, catcher Paul Lo Duca and a bolstered bench.

The good vibes lasted all of three days. Washington opened the season 3-0, proceeded to lose nine in a row and has never recovered. Injuries decimated the lineup. The remaining players began to lose focus and passion. And somewhere over a 6-17 stretch the last four weeks - with three of those wins coming against the Seattle Mariners, owners of baseball's worst record - the Nationals disintegrated from subpar to embarrassing.

Everyone has come under fire: players for not performing up to expectations, manager Manny Acta for not getting the most out of those players, general manager Jim Bowden for not assembling a better roster and Kasten and the rest of ownership for not spending more money to field a more competitive club.

A massive change remains unlikely. Acta often has said "this is who we are," dashing thoughts of a roster overhaul.

As for the job statuses of Acta and Bowden, Kasten quashed any idle speculation about changes on that level: "I think they both have done very well, and they're both absolutely big parts of our future."

Acta held a rare team meeting before Wednesday night's game against the Los Angeles Angels and gave his players a 35-minute pep talk. The Nationals proceeded to win 5-4 on Jesus Flores' ninth-inning RBI single. And though it's hard to believe one team meeting is going to turn an entire team's fortunes around, there was a different vibe inside the clubhouse afterward.

"It's not fun to be a last-place team," Lo Duca said. "We've got the worst record in the National League. And we need to do something about it."

Whether they finish 2008 last or not, the Nationals' ultimate goal hasn't changed. Upon taking control of the organization two years ago, Kasten cautioned fans the rebuilding process would take time. There was no quick fix. And despite his team's monumental struggles this season, that philosophy remains intact.

"Let's face it. We should have had a better record right now than we've had," Kasten said. "But there's nothing that's happened this year which is a kink to us long term. We don't have a big $75 million contract that has backfired. We don't have a $125 million pitcher that has backfired. We've avoided those kind of mistakes.

"That was so important for us to do. Because we don't want to be a team that rebuilds every year. We want to get it right this most important first time so that we can be good for the long haul. I don't think that we have made any long-term mistakes. We've avoided those. And that's what's most important to getting long-term success."