The Washington Times - April 9, 2009, 09:59AM

Back on Sunday, when the Nationals clubhouse was still full of hope and optimism, I wrote about the importance of getting off to a strong start to the season. The Nats have had a history of rough starts (2-9 in 2006, 1-8 in 2007, 3-9 in 2008) and desperately wanted to avoid digging themselves into another huge hole this year. Especially considering their first 21 games all come against NL East opponents.

So that makes the just-completed series in Florida all the more disheartening. Not only did the Nats get swept, not only did they play some mighty ugly baseball (especially in the first two games) but it’s only April 9 and they’re already three games out of first place.


Does that make this the end of the world? Of course not. Last year’s team, lest anyone forget, opened 3-0 and on top of the NL East … before then losing nine straight to fall to the basement. I doubt a reversal of fortune is pending, but obviously the Nats are going to play better than they did the last three days.

In fact, they played much better yesterday during their 6-4 loss to the Marlins that legitimately could have swung the other way if only two or three plays turned out differently (Dan Uggla’s 3-run double in the fifth off Daniel Cabrera, Austin Kearns’ smoked liner right at Brett Carroll in the ninth). Manny Acta should feel more encouraged about the way his team played yesterday, though it should also be painfully obvious what this team needs to do to start winning…

1. More effective starting pitching. John Lannan, Scott Olsen and Daniel Cabrera surrendered a total of 19 runs. Worse, they pitched a combined 12 innings. That doesn’t cut it. Lannan, I’m not so concerned about. We saw what he can do last season, and I think it’s fair to say he’s going to have a lot more 3-runs-in-7-innings outings than 6-runs-in-3-innings. But Olsen and Cabrera are legitimate causes for concern. Olsen did not have a good spring. He insisted all along he wasn’t concerned, said he was working on things and not worried about results, and said he’s never been a good spring training pitcher. That may all be true, but he was getting hit around all spring and he got hit around on Tuesday. That needs to change. Cabrera actually pitched better yesterday than he did most of the spring, which tells you how bad he was this spring. Look, the guy is probably never going to become the dominant starter the Orioles hoped he would be. But we saw yesterday he’s capable of at least pitching effectively enough to keep his team in the game. What he can’t do is let one inning get out of hand, which he did in the fifth.

2. Better defense. This development has been surprising, because the Nats figured to be a much better defensive team in 2009 and looked like a better defensive team this spring. Some mistakes are unavoidable. (Adam Dunn is going to be an adventure in left field. There’s no getting around that.) But Ryan Zimmerman is better than this, and he knows it. Zim, though, needs to start playing every routine grounder like he does the hot smashes down the line. When he’s aggressive and has a hop in his step, he plays fabulous defense. When he gets lazy and too casual with routing plays, he commits errors. Time to clean that up now before it really becomes an issue.

3. Better, more-patient at-bats. I finally started to see this late in yesterday’s game, especially during the attempted ninth-inning rally. Guys were working the count, fouling off pitches, laying off breaking balls out of the strike zone. Guys can learn a thing or two from Nick Johnson, Elijah Dukes, Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham, who all had very good at-bats against Marlins closer Matt Lindstrom. It wasn’t just that they saw a lot of pitches. In doing so, they made Lindstrom work to the point he had thrown 33 pitches by the end of the inning. He barely avoided the blown save, but it wasn’t for lack of effort on the Nats’ part. A little more of that patient approach earlier in games, and the Nats could knock the opposing starter out sooner.