- The Washington Times - Monday, April 14, 2008

The Washington Nationals’ Manny Acta isn’t the only manager who’s refraining from the Type A personality approach to his team’s slow start. In fact, he’s in good company.

Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland — he of the 1,200-plus wins, three manager of the year awards and one World Series title — also has refrained from making any major changes after the Tigers, predicted by many to reach the World Series, started the season 0-7.

“We’ve got what we’ve got. It’s real good. We just haven’t got it going yet,” Leyland told reporters after the Tigers fell to the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday for their seventh loss of the season. “Obviously, at some point, you’ve got to get it going, but I’m not going to continue to harp on that. We’ve got a good offensive ballclub that just hasn’t hit yet.”

Leyland’s approach to Detroit’s sluggish start has been the same as Acta’s: Look for the positives, correct what you can and don’t overreact. For the Tigers, Nationals, Rockies and anyone else who struggled early, that might be the right approach.

Yes, overwhelming evidence suggests a strong start is important; 165 of the 200 playoff teams since 1969 have been over .500 in their first 10 games.

But at least in recent history, there’s certainly reason to suggest none of the teams that have started slow should be worried yet.

After most teams had played 13 games last season, only three of the eight teams that eventually made the playoffs were in position to do so (leading their division or the wild card standings). The same was true in 2006, 2005 and 2003. According to research by Dave Smith of Retrosheet.org, four teams were under .500 last April and still made the playoffs: the Yankees, Cubs, Rockies and Phillies.

But there’s a catch — the last two teams on that list closed the season with impressive stretch drives. Philadelphia was 45-29 after the All-Star break last year, while Colorado was 46-29. The 2006 Minnesota Twins, who were 9-16 on May 1, needed a 49-27 tear after the All-Star break to finish 96-66 and win the AL Central on the season’s last day.

To avoid that kind of heavy lifting, most playoff teams start finding a groove early in the season.

In four of the last five years, at least four eventual playoff qualifiers were in position to make it on May 1.

By May 15, that number has gone up to five in three of the last five seasons.

So while starting fast isn’t the be-all, end-all, the next several weeks are crucial for teams that don’t get hot early.

“You cannot get caught up in the eight games, nine games, whatever [the losing streak] lasts,” Acta said. “Just try to go out there and play a good ballgame.”

Acta and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman have maintained the Nationals are playing good baseball, just as Leyland has said about the Tigers.

Whether the Nationals can achieve respectability after a disastrous opening like they did last year or whether there’s a 2008 version of the Rockies in this year’s bunch of slow starters remains to be seen.

Recent examples, at least, would suggest answers will start to come relatively soon.

“If you don’t think that [Tigers] lineup is going to win a lot of games … it’s going to win a lot of games,” said Nationals general manager Jim Bowden, who was the GM of the 1995 Cincinnati Reds — one of two teams in baseball history to start 0-6 and make the playoffs. “You get to June or July, they’ll go through a 17-4 run and everyone will go, ‘Wow! What would have happened if they had a good start in April?’ When you start this way, it’s just magnified. And rightfully so. It should be that way.”


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