Sunday, July 1, 2007

PITTSBURGH — Manny Acta doesn’t like calling team meetings. Never has, never will. So the Washington Nationals manager usually waits until things reach a certain critical level before gathering his players together for a heart-to-heart talk.

Late Friday night, with his team showing all the telltale signs of a prolonged slump — poor hitting, a lack of execution of pitches, feelings of demoralization — Acta decided the time was right. He made up in his mind to hold a meeting if the Nationals slogged their way through another uninspired effort last night, a premonition that came true.

After a 7-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates that dropped Washington to 0-5 on this road trip and 3-11 over the last two weeks, Acta closed the doors to the visitors’ clubhouse at PNC Park.

When he finally opened them 20 minutes later, his message was clear: Don’t accept losing. You are better than this.

“It’s been the same thing over and over and over, and I don’t want the guys falling into that type of routine,” he said. “I just want to make sure they don’t get comfortable losing.”

Acta’s second team meeting of the season — his first came April 11 in Atlanta after the Nationals had fallen to 1-8 — featured the same, upbeat message. Only a couple of weeks ago, Washington was lauded around baseball for exceeding expectations. One losing streak shouldn’t change anything.

“Don’t fall into the trap of being a [horrible] ballclub,” veteran Robert Fick said, echoing his manager’s words. “It doesn’t matter who we are, how much money we make, whether we’re the Mets or the Nationals, the Braves or the Nationals. We’ve shown we can play with those teams. We’ve shown we can play good baseball. We just haven’t the last 10 days.”

With this latest slide, Washington (32-48) has fallen to 16 games under .500 for the first time since May 9. After that, the Nationals won 20 of their next 32 games.

But unless they win today’s series finale at PNC, they’ll reach the halfway point of the season on pace to finish the season 64-98.

Team officials certainly will pay close attention to all those players who still are trying to secure their place on the long-term roster, and the next three months will go a long way toward making those decisions.

“This is an opportunity for us to prove to the coaches here and management that you want to be here,” outfielder Ryan Church said. “Everybody’s playing for something. This year is going to be a test. They’re watching and seeing what guys they want to keep around.”

One of the players who had made a strong case for himself through the season’s first half — Jason Bergmann — was surprisingly out of form in last night’s loss. The right-hander, who had allowed one run or less in six of his first nine starts this year, was tagged for six runs in only four innings.

All six runs came during a frustrating second inning. Bergmann (1-5) got himself into trouble by allowing the inning’s first four men to reach base safely but appeared on the verge of getting out of the jam allowing only two runs to score.

With two outs and the bases loaded, he got Freddy Sanchez to hit a pop-up toward the third-base dugout. Catcher Brian Schneider raced over to make a play, leaned well over the dugout railing and got his glove on the ball, only to watch it pop out.

Moments later, Sanchez lined an 0-2 single up the middle, bringing home two runs to give the Pirates a 4-1 lead.

“It would have gotten us out of a jam, but it wouldn’t have made up for the pitches I missed,” Bergmann said of the Schneider play. “If he’s able to come up with it, that’s great. But I’ve got to do a better job the other times.”

Bergmann didn’t do his job. After Sanchez’s single, he allowed a two-run double to Adam LaRoche (who entered the game hitting .219 but went 2-for-4 with a homer and three RBI).

“I never really felt comfortable out there the whole day,” said Bergmann, whose ERA rose from 2.72 to 3.47. “I just didn’t feel fluid. I didn’t feel right.”

Washington’s fast-fading offense didn’t do much to help Bergmann’s cause. A unit that has failed to score more than two runs in any of the five games on this road trip was stifled once again, held in check by Pittsburgh left-hander Tom Gorzelanny (8-4) over 71/3 innings.

So when the game ended, Acta closed down his clubhouse and spent 20 minutes trying to get his players back on track.

“The effort is there. The heart is there,” Fick said. “[But] it’s going to take a little more than heart and effort. I think that’s what he was pointing at.”

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