- The Washington Times - Monday, August 14, 2006

In every losing season, there inevitably comes a point when hope for immediate success is lost and focus is shifted toward the future.

The Washington Nationals probably reached that point weeks, even months, ago. But if there were any eternal optimists out there still holding on to hope, surely yesterday’s game sealed the deal.

This just in: The Nationals are not a good team. They are 15 games under .500 after yesterday’s 3-1 loss to the New York Mets. They have a makeshift pitching staff that probably would be average at best at Class AAA New Orleans. And they have neither the mental makeup nor the leadership qualities required to endure difficult times.

Boy, that was evident yesterday.

Where to begin? How about three errors in three innings with the game on the line? Or Ryan Zimmerman forgetting there was only one out when Nick Johnson hit a fly ball to center field in the eighth?

And that’s only what happened on the field in front of 37,732 fans. Things only got worse behind closed doors, with the manager clearly agitated and appearing to suggest his team quit on him, the pitcher of record issuing a statement through a PR spokesman rather than speaking to reporters and a couple of players turning over chairs and cursing out members of the media.

By day’s end, there was only one conclusion: The 2006 Nationals are a lost cause, and the focus for the next seven weeks should be on nothing but building for 2007 and beyond.

Wins and losses are immaterial at this point. Really, does it matter whether this team finishes 72-90 or 62-100?

It doesn’t. That can be a painful realization for an organization that wants to put on a good show and keep fans interested during lean times. But it’s for the best.

The Nationals, during the next seven weeks, don’t need to try to win as many games as they can.

They need to identify who on the current roster fits into the long-term plan. Those who do need to be playing on a regular basis. Those who do not need to be removed from the equation.

The Nationals need to set the tone for 2007 by demanding accountability from players, coaches, managers, general managers, owners and everyone in between when things are not going well. No more pointing fingers. No more thinly veiled criticisms of others.

And the Nationals need to decide who will lead this team, both in the manager’s office and in the clubhouse.

Frank Robinson has no idea whether he will be back next season. He has been told by upper management that a decision will be made later, presumably after game No. 162. There is little reason to believe the Hall of Famer will be asked to return, especially given the organization’s stated intention of rebuilding for the long haul.

But until that is explicitly expressed, Robinson finds himself in awkward territory, occasionally speaking his mind about the team’s current and future situation but often biting his tongue and holding back so as not to upset anyone.

There’s only so much a manager can do, though. At some point, a leader needs to emerge from within the clubhouse, and that’s something that hasn’t happened in two seasons of baseball at RFK Stadium.

There was a point last season where Jose Guillen appeared to be taking control of the team. You see how that turned out. All other candidates for the job — Jose Vidro, Livan Hernandez, Brian Schneider, Nick Johnson — either haven’t had the personality or the game to handle it.

The two logical possibilities to emerge over time are Alfonso Soriano (only if he re-signs over the winter, of course) and Ryan Zimmerman (only if he grows up really fast). It’s hard to say how either scenario will play out.

Regardless, it’s time for someone to emerge. Someone who both commands respect from his teammates and is willing to get in their faces and call them out when necessary.

The Nationals needed someone like that yesterday.

They have needed someone like that throughout a season that began with so much promise yet is now creeping toward the finish line on the precipice of disarray.

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To

submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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