- The Washington Times - Monday, April 23, 2007

MIAMI — By his own admission, Manny Acta is an incredibly patient man. He can deal with pitchers who serve up towering home runs, hitters who strike out with the bases loaded and fielders who can’t field routine grounders.

All of those happened in the Washington Nationals’ 12-6 loss to the Florida Marlins yesterday. And Acta, while certainly not pleased with the outcome, still was OK with all that.

What the Nationals’ manager couldn’t live with was the simple lack of hustle Ryan Church displayed on a second-inning groundball. Church, Washington’s best all-around player through the season’s opening three weeks, didn’t run hard down the line on his grounder to first.

And that prompted Acta to make a bold move heretofore unseen from the rookie skipper. He benched Church in the second inning of a then-scoreless game, hoping to send a message to the 28-year-old outfielder and his entire team.

“I think everybody here knows from day one when I took this job that I’m a Ryan Church fan,” Acta said. “But we’re going to keep teaching here to play the game the right way. Win or lose, we’re going to play hard, and that’s not going to be tolerated.”

There was so much for Acta to dislike about this game. Starter Jerome Williams was abysmal, allowing 10 runs (nine earned) during a six-inning stint that was prolonged because the Nationals’ overworked bullpen was in desperate need of some relief. Washington’s defense committed four errors and several other miscues that contributed to a deficit, which at one point was 10-0. The offense racked up one hit through six innings against journeyman Wes Obermueller, called up from the minors by the desperate Marlins earlier in the day.

But those problems were mostly the result of physical mistakes or poor execution. Church’s mistake was a lack of effort, nothing more, and so Acta decided to make an example out of him.

At first, it appeared Church might have hurt himself. He grimaced as he slowed down about 40 feet from first base. As he later explained, he has been dealing with shin splints.

“But that’s not an excuse,” he said. “There are no excuses. You’ve got to play hard. I’ve played hard this whole season, given it everything I’ve got. That one play just got me.”

In the dugout, Washington players were surprised to hear Acta call for Chris Snelling to replace Church in the lineup, leading to a complete reconfiguring of the outfield. Snelling took over in left, with Austin Kearns moving from right to center and Robert Fick from left to right.

But the rest of the Nationals understood why Acta made the move, even if it perhaps hindered the team’s chances of winning this game.

“[Church has] played hard all year, and he’s been out there every day,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “But nobody can do that. Alex Rodriguez can’t do that.”

Coincidence or not, this game began to unravel shortly after Church was removed. The Marlins scored three runs in the second and were off and running the rest of the afternoon.

Experiencing it all from the pitcher’s mound was Williams, who did nothing to salvage his wretched April. The 25-year-old right-hander served up two gargantuan homers (Miguel Cabrera’s 467-foot solo shot in the third and Dan Uggla’s 466-foot three-run blast in the fourth). Both landed in the upper deck at Dolphin Stadium, with Cabrera’s bouncing right down a portal and into the concourse.

Most pitchers would have been removed from the game at that point, but Acta couldn’t afford to make a change yet. His relief corps was wiped out after throwing a combined 22 innings the previous four days, leaving only Chad Cordero and Jon Rauch available in the bullpen.

So Williams had to stay in the game, at least through the sixth inning, no matter how bad it got. He wound up serving up another homer, a two-run shot by Josh Willingham that made the score 10-0.

“We’re thankful,” Acta said. “He knew he had to take it on the chin for us, and he did.”

But how much longer will the Nationals keep giving the ball to Williams? In four starts this season, he’s 0-4 with a 7.77 ERA, having put 38 runners on base in only 22 innings.

“I don’t even want to remember what happened these last four starts,” Williams said. “I just want to flush that down the toilet and try to move forward.”

The Nationals would prefer to flush yesterday’s loss (and everything that came with it) as well, hoping if nothing else that Acta’s surprise move with Church at least will have a positive effect on this club as it moves forward.

“I know I messed up,” Church said. “I got the message loud and clear. We’ll leave it at that. Tomorrow’s another day.”

Notes — The latter innings featured a couple of milestone hits for Washington players. Rookie catcher Jesus Flores recorded his first career hit and two RBI with a seventh-inning double to center. Then in the ninth, Zimmerman hit his first career grand slam, the first by the Nationals since Alfonso Soriano did it June 4, 2006, in Milwaukee.

Injured outfielder Nook Logan (sprained left foot) and shortstop Cristian Guzman (strained left hamstring) went to Viera, Fla., following the game to continue their rehabilitation at extended spring training. Acta said he’s hoping both players are ready to return in a week.

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