- The Washington Times - Friday, July 17, 2009

The Washington Nationals fired Manny Acta during the All-Star break because they felt a new voice and a fresh outlook was needed after a wretched three months of baseball.

Too many times the Nationals’ front office had seen its club commit mistakes in the field, on the bases and at the plate, producing the kind of bad baseball that makes a managerial change necessary.

So enter Jim Riggleman, who took the reins of the majors’ worst team Thursday hoping to elicit a better brand of ball from this team than his predecessor did. And then watched the Nationals play exactly the kind of bad baseball that landed him this interim gig in the first place.

With a 6-2 loss to the Chicago Cubs, the Nationals opened the Jim Riggleman Era with a game that looked like dozens of vintage games from the Manny Acta Era. They committed two errors that each led to runs, they had a man picked off first base, they failed to come through the few times they had a chance to score and they saw their bullpen uncork two wild pitches and allow a close game to get out of hand.

Still sure you want this job on a permanent basis, Jim?

Riggleman, a Rockville native, had been through this before. Only 13 months ago, he was promoted from bench coach to interim manager of a Seattle Mariners club stuck in last place, with several dead-weight veterans clogging up the roster, and needing a fresh start. Riggleman did win his first game back at the helm, 10-2 over the Atlanta Braves, but he proceeded to lose 54 of 89 the rest of the way.

The 56-year-old veteran baseball man is realistic about the situation he’s now in, acknowledging Acta wasn’t to blame for the Nationals’ woes and even admitting he isn’t likely to implement many changes to the previous manager’s strategy book.

More than anything, Riggleman hopes to connect with his players on a mental level, instilling a bit more sense of urgency to their psyches, which in turn should lead to better play on the field.

But it didn’t take long Thursday night for the same problems that got Acta fired to crop up once again, whether in the form of poor defense, a lack of good situational hitting or a base-running blunder.

The Cubs’ first run was of the unearned variety, made possible by Ryan Zimmerman’s throwing error on No. 8 hitter Koyie Hill’s routine bouncer to third. Zimmerman’s 13th error of the season was all too familiar to Nationals observers — he took too much time to get his throw off and then airmailed it over Nick Johnson’s head, allowing Hill to advance to second and then take third on Rich Harden’s sacrifice bunt.

Washington starter John Lannan nearly escaped the jam, striking out Reed Johnson and then getting two quick strikes on Ryan Theriot. But Theriot reached down on Lannan’s 0-2 breaking ball out of the zone and lined it to left field for an RBI double and the night’s first run.

Derrek Lee’s solo homer in the sixth made it 2-0, and the Cubs manufactured another run in the seventh (getting an infield single, another sacrifice bunt, a groundout and a base hit up the middle) to knock Lannan out of the game.

The left-hander and pseudo-ace of the Washington staff had a perfectly serviceable outing — two earned runs and seven hits in 6 2/3 innings — but he was the victim once again of a lack of offensive and defensive support and thus saw his record fall to 6-7 through little fault of his own.

The Nationals didn’t have many chances to score off Harden (6-6) or any of the three relievers who followed. They converted in the sixth, but that rally required Nyjer Morgan to steal second and take third on an error before scoring on Nick Johnson’s groundout.

Otherwise, Washington’s lineup looked limp, especially the heart of Riggleman’s order. Johnson, Zimmerman, Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham and Cristian Guzman combined to go 1-for-19 with six strikeouts.