- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 3, 2007

VERO BEACH, Fla. — Manny Acta has stressed, among other things, solid fundamentals from the Washington Nationals in his first spring as manager. Crisp play in the field. Productive at-bats. Smart baserunning.

So Acta couldn’t have been pleased with the effort he got from his club in yesterday’s exhibition opener, a 12-7 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers that featured two errors and several baserunning blunders.

No, these games don’t count. And yes, it was only the first of 29 Grapefruit League contests before the Nationals break camp and head north. But as Acta knows all too well, the tone has to be set now.

“We gave away five outs, and that’s what we’ve been stressing the whole spring,” he said. “When you have to make 27 and you give outs on the bases, it’s going to cost you. And it did.”

Washington also got some poor relief work from a bullpen that blew an early 7-2 lead and let the Dodgers clobber the ball all over quaint Holman Stadium. But most of those mistakes were made by backups who have little chance of making the Opening Day roster. The fundamental mistakes were made by players who are competing for jobs.

Both errors were committed by D’Angelo Jimenez, who is battling for a utility infield spot. Playing shortstop yesterday, Jimenez made a wild throw on Wilson Valdez’s leadoff grounder in the first inning. Before the Dodgers’ third batter had put the ball into play, catcher Brian Schneider threw the ball into center field trying to gun down a stealing Valdez and starter Shawn Hill uncorked a wild pitch.

By the time Hill retreated to the dugout, the Dodgers had scored two unearned runs.

“It’s the first game, and you can expect errors,” Schneider said. “Obviously you need to nip it in the bud as soon as possible before the season starts, but we’ve got [28] games to go. Just keep stressing defense. Obviously today you could see for them and for us it leads to runs, and that’s what you want to eliminate.”

Jimenez also was charged with an error on a tough-hop grounder by Nomar Garciaparra in the third, which led to another unearned run, but Acta was less concerned about the defensive gaffes than he was a pair of mistakes on the basepaths.

The first came from Alex Escobar, who in his first at-bat as designated hitter lofted a base hit into shallow center field and tried to stretch it into a double. Juan Pierre easily threw Escobar out, and that ultimately prevented Washington from scoring a second-inning run off $47 million Dodger right-hander Jason Schmidt.

Then in the sixth, Nook Logan tried to score all the way from second on a slow roller to third. Had he scored, Logan would have been lauded for his hustle. But the Los Angeles defense saw it coming all the way, and first baseman James Loney fired to the plate to nail Logan and prevent another Nationals run from scoring.

“You don’t get so mad on physical errors,” Acta said. “Those things, sometimes you can’t control. But the other things, like giving outs away on the bases, that’s a little more irritating than a ball that takes a bad hop or something.”

All the egregious mistakes took place when the outcome of the game was still in doubt. By the later innings, the Nationals bullpen saw to it that the Dodgers would win handily.

Right-handers Chris Schroder and Emiliano Fruto were the biggest culprits. Schroder (whose grandmother died Thursday night, forcing him to fly home to Oklahoma following the game) was touched up by Larry Bigbie for a three-run homer in the fifth. Fruto, acquired from Seattle this winter in the Jose Vidro trade, allowed four runs on four hits and two walks in a painful eighth inning, with Bigbie also getting to him for a two-run homer deep down the right-field line.

There were some positives from the game, though, most of them coming in the early innings. Hill, becoming a frontrunner to win one of the four open spots in the Nationals’ rotation, was mostly effective in his two innings of work. The 25-year-old right-hander allowed two singles but managed to keep his sinker in the strike zone and balls on the ground.

“Overall, it was good,” he said. “I was a little jittery the first outing, trying to get ahead of myself and work a little too fast. But overall, I’ll take it. One or two pitches I left up, but I can’t complain.”

The Nationals couldn’t complain about their offensive explosion against left-hander Matt Hendrickson in the third and fourth innings. Washington scored seven runs off the 6-foot-9 hurler, three courtesy Ryan Zimmerman, who singled in a run in the third and launched a two-run homer off the batter’s eye in center field in the fourth.

“It feels good just to hit balls solid,” said Zimmerman, who finished 2-for-3. “It doesn’t matter if they go out or not. Just to make solid contact is more important to me.”

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