Acta on hot seat

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Manny Acta used to be a fan. He grew up rooting for different teams, different players, different sports. So he can appreciate the passions, emotions and strong opinions all fans have over the teams, players and sports they support.

Acta understands how an 0-7 start to the season gets fans riled up. How it leaves them ranting and raving and wanting blood.

The Washington Nationals’ manager feels fans’ pain. He feels it more than fans realize.

Unfortunately, he can’t show it to them.

“The thing is, I can’t think like a fan anymore, or react like one, because I’m not one,” Acta said. “I have two choices: I could start losing it, get crazy over six games, knowing that I have 156 left. Or keep my cool head and keep working with my guys and staying positive. I choose to do that. But I do understand people’s disappointment and the way they feel because I was a fan myself.”

Somewhere along his path from minor league infielder to major league manager, Acta decided to change his public persona. When he first started managing in the Houston Astros’ system, he recalls getting ejected on an almost-weekly basis because he would argue every disputed call with umpires.

Eventually, he realized that tack didn’t work. For starters, what good could he do managing from the clubhouse? And what kind of reputation would he develop as a manager who went ballistic every time something went wrong?

Acta decided he needed to keep his public displays of emotion in check. And behind the scenes, he decided he needed to take the same approach with his players. Stay positive with them, don’t rip them in public, preach patience.

It’s a philosophy that earned Acta rave reviews for more than two years with Washington. But that darling image [-] whether with team executives, media or fans cultivated since the day he was hired in late 2006 may be waning. For the first time since he came to Washington, Acta is under scrutiny. From fans. From the media. And perhaps even from within the organization.

Throughout the season’s first week, Acta preached patience as always. No reason to panic, not this early. The team would be fine. So would its struggling players.

What, then, to make of the Nationals’ decision Tuesday to option Lastings Milledge to Class AAA Syracuse? Sending down a young but struggling player who is supposed to be a key building block for the organization after only seven games — how is that a display of patience?

If anything, it was a reactionary move, one the Nationals felt they had to make both because of Milledge’s struggles and because of the overall team’s struggles. It was a move supported by many within the organization, according to club sources, but it wasn’t necessarily supported by Acta.

Acta is a Milledge guy, has been since their days together in New York. When others rip the outfielder for his play or his personality, Acta defends him. And he did it again Wednesday in discussing the demotion.

“I’m a big fan of Lastings,” Acta said. “I think Lastings is going to be a good player. “I’m pulling for him, and I’m anticipating him being back up here and making a contribution.”

Others in the organization may not feel the same way. Some, in fact, believe there’s a chance Milledge won’t return.

Managers and their bosses disagree on roster moves often. But there are growing signs that the Nationals-Acta marriage may not be as strong as it once was.

Several team officials weren’t happy when Acta didn’t bench Milledge for arriving late to a pre-Opening Day meeting. Some weren’t happy with the way he handled his bullpen in Monday’s 9-8 loss to Philadelphia. Acta’s coaching staff, aside from pitching coach Randy St. Claire, was overhauled during the offseason. The Nationals have shown no inkling of picking up Acta’s contract option for next season, leaving him a lame duck in the interim.

Acta has the right answer whenever he’s asked about job security.

“I really don’t worry about that,” he said. “I’m going to get a job if it’s not here. My hope is to be here for the next 20 years. But if I don’t, I’ll have a job somewhere.”

The pertinent question now is: Are the Nationals as an organization going to show the same patience their manager has been preaching for three years?

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