Monday, April 2, 2007

Manny Acta has a simple message for all those who have predicted doom and gloom for his 2007 Washington Nationals.

“Don’t tell me we can’t turn this around,” the rookie manager said. “Don’t tell me we can’t win.”

That’s the kind of optimistic outlook Acta has been imparting on his players and on anyone who has encountered him for the last seven weeks while he prepared this club for Opening Day. Few outside observers are taking him seriously. Every major national media outlet has predicted Washington will finish last in the National League East, and many have gone beyond that to say the Nationals will lose 100, 110, even 120 games.

Every player inside the RFK Stadium clubhouse has heard it. They have been inundated with talk about being historically bad and being far and away the worst team in the major leagues this season.

And they don’t care. Like their young manager, they choose to believe otherwise.

“We look around and we see all these people predicting 48 and 100-something losses, and it’s just like: Come on, we’re not going to be that bad,” left fielder Ryan Church said. “I don’t know how people can judge us off paper. If you look around this room, I wish people could see that we do have some good ingredients here to have a good team.”

The Nationals, their supporters and their detractors all will start to learn today just what kind of team they have. Washington plays host to the Florida Marlins at 1:05 p.m. in the first Opening Day at RFK Stadium since 1971, so an offseason of speculation and prediction finally will give way to actual, hard evidence on the diamond.

Apparently, the locals aren’t terribly captivated to find out for themselves. As of yesterday afternoon, about 11,000 tickets remained for 46,000-seat RFK, and though team president Stan Kasten was holding out hope for a large walkup crowd on what is expected to be a gorgeous day, the game will not be a sellout.

“We understand all the negativity that has been created around this team,” Acta said. “It’s not disappointing to us. I came over here the last two years [as third base coach of the New York Mets], and whoever shows up here, they’re behind these guys, incredible, whether it’s 5,000 or 30,000.”

It’s yet another example of the Nationals refusing to let public perception skewer their own feelings about themselves. And it begins with Acta, who spoke on the day he was hired of “shocking the world” and hasn’t let up since.

Throughout spring training, the 38-year-old manager pounded positive enforcement into his players. Sometimes, it was done subtly in the form of a passing comment on the practice fields. Sometimes, it was done overtly in the form of a team meeting.

Acta was at it again yesterday during a 30-minute gathering with his players before an afternoon workout at RFK. His message, among other things: prove all the naysayers wrong.

And Acta’s players have listened.

“He’s been very energetic from the first day he came in, saying no one thinks we’re going to do anything and we’re going to prove everybody wrong,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “He’s been real upbeat about it, and I think that’s helped us be a little bit more confident.”

Of course, all the confidence in the world can’t overcome a lack of talent and execution on the field, and there are questions about the Nationals in both regards. Especially when it comes to their inexperienced starting rotation.

Acta will send to the mound today a pitcher who won all of one major league game last season: right-hander John Patterson, who made only eight starts because of an elbow injury. Patterson, though, takes his assignment today seriously. It’s the first time he has started on Opening Day since he was in the minor leagues, and he understands the significance of it.

“Those are the games you want to pitch,” he said. “Only 30 guys a year get to do it. It’s an honor. It’s definitely a pleasure. I’m very excited about it.”

As are Patterson’s teammates. For the last seven weeks, they have heard nothing but bad things about their chances this season. Most of them just want to take the field for a game that actually counts and begin the process of proving they aren’t going to lose 100 games.

“I think we’re a better team than we were last year,” Zimmerman said. “For them to say we’re going to lose that many games, I just don’t see it happening.”

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