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Nationals enter offseason of change
PHILADELPHIA | The Washington Nationals’ transition from a forgettable season to a winter of change and perhaps better fortune began even before the 2008 season came to an end Sunday afternoon.
In the eighth inning of what would become an 8-3 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies, the Nationals announced wholesale changes to their coaching staff, with everyone but manager Manny Acta and pitching coach Randy St. Claire losing their jobs.
Five coaches who had been with the organization the last two years were fired: bench coach Pat Corrales, hitting coach Lenny Harris, third base coach Tim Tolman, first base coach Jerry Morales and bullpen coach Rick Aponte. Kazu Tomooka, the franchise’s strength and conditioning coach since 2002, also was fired along with video coordinator Tom Yost.
“We appreciate the hard work the coaches gave us the last couple years,” general manager Jim Bowden said from his skybox as the Nationals were wrapping up their 102nd loss of the season. “We just felt that at this time a change was necessary.”
“Change” will be the overriding theme to this entire offseason for a Nationals franchise that took a major step backward in 2008. Sunday’s loss capped a miserable season on the field, one that produced the majors’ worst record at 59-102 and ensured Washington will have the No. 1 selection in next summer’s draft.
There are issues to be resolved throughout the organization as well, with the authority of team president Stan Kasten being questioned by some, the future of Bowden questioned by others and an underachieving roster facing a potential overhaul.
“It’s a hard time for all of us,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said.
By the time the Nationals took the field for what was essentially a meaningless season finale at Citizens Bank Park - the Phillies already had clinched the NL East title the previous day - the coaching staff knew of its fate. Corrales, who just completed his 50th season in professional baseball, was informed he would not be retained earlier in the week. Tolman, Harris, Morales and Aponte were told Sunday morning by Acta, who struggled to break the news.
“It’s a very tough day for me,” the manager said. “I’m a blessed individual. I haven’t had too many bad news in my life. Other than the death of my older brother [in 2006], this is the worst news I’ve ever had before.”
Acta was particularly close with Tolman and Aponte, two veteran baseball men who spent years with a young Acta in the Houston Astros’ organization before getting their first shots in the big leagues last season.
Acta admitted it was difficult to make it through Sunday’s game - in which the Phillies took a 4-3 lead in the fourth and ensured there would be no comeback by piling on late - but the departing coaches handled their exit with grace.
“Baseball’s not fair. It’s been this way for 100 years,” Tolman said. “When a team struggles, there’s going to be changes, and most of those teams will change their coaching staffs or their managers. That’s just baseball.”
The different members of the staff each came under different levels of scrutiny over the course of the season, perhaps none receiving as much vitriol as Harris. Thrust into the hitting coach’s job last summer despite no previous coaching experience, the former pinch-hitter extraordinaire was criticized when the Nationals’ depleted offense produced some of the lowest numbers in baseball.
Harris pointed to all the injuries that ravaged Washington’s lineup as a main contributor to those woes but also acknowledged he was left learning on the job.
“I learned a lot around these guys, and it’s only going to help me,” he said. “It was tough. I didn’t know it was going to be this tough.”
Bowden said the organization would consider retaining some of the fired coaches in other capacities. Corrales could fall into that category if the 67-year-old decides to continue working in the sport.
“I think they’ve got a fine young manager in Manny Acta, and this organization is geared right now, I understand, to deal with the kids,” he said. “If they go that way, it’s a good direction.”
Bowden wouldn’t put a timetable on his search for a new staff, saying only that “we’re committed to hiring the very best coaches in the game.”
But as the final outs were being recorded in a 2008 season everyone in Washington would rather forget, it was obvious the organization’s focus already has shifted toward the future.
There are a lot of changes that we need to make to get to where we want to get to,” Bowden said. “We’re going to start on 2009 tomorrow morning.”
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