- The Washington Times - Friday, August 7, 2009

A ballpark can be a lonely place on a rainy Thursday morning in August, especially when the home team is 36 games under .500 and buried so deep in last place that not even one of the Lerner family’s excavation crews could find it.

Staggering somewhat under the burden of playing a day game after a night game, plus the unaccustomed pressure of a four-game winning streak, the Nationals showed up for work and went about the usual clubhouse pursuits: watching ESPN highlights, playing video games, making cell phone calls, attacking the pregame meal.

Off in a nearby media room, interim manager Jim Riggleman fielded routine questions. Yes, he insisted, he was “very pleased” with recent efforts of the major leagues’ shakiest bullpen. Yes, he planned to rest his regulars periodically, “but for me it’s more a case of getting the other guys some at-bats.”

Then a man asked Riggleman the most pertinent, if not quite burning, question about his baseball future: “Next year?”

Since replacing Manny Acta on July 13, Riggleman somehow had wrought a 10-11 record out of his ragtag troops despite an 0-5 start. But that provided no assurance of his continued employment. The Nats had 54 games remaining, more than enough time to rediscover their Little League ways. Riggleman knows how bad D.C. baseball teams can be. He grew up in Rockville rooting vainly for the Senators.

Riggleman handled the inquiry smoothly - and candidly. He has spent 28 seasons as a professional manager and coach, and he knows full well that “interim” can be the most dangerous word in the English language.

“I went through this last year in Seattle [with a 36-54 record as a midseason replacement for John McLaren], and I didn’t get the [permanent] job,” he said. “That helped me realize that all you can do is go out there and do the best you can. You can’t make any assumptions, you can’t predict what’s going to happen. … I don’t put any expectations on anything. I just take pleasure in doing the job while I’m doing it.”

Pleasure? Really? Managing this club?

“It’s a great honor and privilege.”

Perhaps Riggleman’s sort of sunny approach rubbed off on the weather gods. By the time plate umpire Adrian Johnson yowled, “Play ball!” and rookie right-hander Craig Stammen flung his first pitch to Marlins center fielder Chris Coghlan at 12:36, the skies had brightened a little. In the stands, a paid crowd announced as 23,691- many of them juveniles - put aside their rain gear and settled down to see how the newly nifty Nats would perform.

Badly, at the outset anyway.

Coghlan ripped a double over Josh Willingham’s head, and before Stammen could say, “What happened?” the Marlins had a 2-0 lead in the first inning. It grew to 6-0 in the second, but to their credit the Nats refused to fold. Ryan Zimmerman slugged a two-run homer, Elijah Dukes drove in three and Alberto Gonzalez a pair to get Washington even at 8-8 in the lucky seventh.

Of course, there were indications the Nats still need improvement. Riggleman and pitching coach Steve McCatty required seven pitchers to hold off the Marlins. Second baseman Ronnie Belliard messed up a double play in the Florida sixth by being nowhere near the bag when shortstop Gonzalez’s toss arrived. And in the Washington seventh, slow-footed catcher Josh Bard was an easy out at second when Gonzalez appeared to miss a hit-and-run sign.

But wonder of wonders, Belliard redeemed himself by singling home the go-ahead run in the eighth, stealing second and scoring on Zimmerman’s fourth hit, a triple. Two more runs followed, and at the finish it was the second-place Marlins who slunk off the field.

“It’s very much a confidence booster,” Riggleman said of the comeback victory, “but we’ve done that a lot lately.”

Final score: 12-8 Nats. Three-game series sweep over a longtime tormentor. Five-game winning streak. And when the afternoon ended, the skies were bright and beautiful. At least for a day.

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