- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 23, 2008

VIERA, Fla.

Manny Acta saw a lot more talent on the field than in years past during the Washington Nationals first full squad spring training workout yesterday. A good part of his job is to take that talent and produce results.

General manager Jim Bowden already has big expectations, saying this team has what it takes to win.

“I think we are ready to win more games than we lose,” Bowden said when camp opened. “Of course, that takes a lot of young players stepping up, but I think they are capable of doing that.”

It is then Acta’s responsibility to get the most out of them.

When asked what he thought about what his boss said, Acta answered, “What do I think? My main thing is continuing to make progress as a team. If I win one more than last year, is that considered progress? That’s not the way I look at it. If I lose more than last year, depending on what we do, we’re taking a step backwards? We’re going to have to see that.

“I can’t put numbers. My goal last year was to prove to these guys that — despite all the big names leaving our club — if we got better at certain areas of the game, we could make up for that. I think we proved that to them. And now with the couple of extra players we have over here, continue to do the same thing, I hope we get better. Number of victories? I mean, that can change at any point. A couple of guys can go down and if seven of them on the field make progress and because two of the key guys went down maybe we’re not going to win as many games, so really the numbers thing doesn’t do it for me.”

Here’s what else can change that — team chemistry.

It is one of the debates that goes on in sport, and one school of thought always has been that winning creates chemistry. But when the Nationals started off 9-25 last year in Acta’s first season as manager, they weren’t winning but they were building chemistry. They were sticking together and learning about each other under the toughest of conditions, which helped them finish the season 64-64.

So while Acta will be monitoring the talent on the field to see whether his team is making the most of its talent there, he also will be watching what happens in the clubhouse, how his players interact, how they deal with all the responsibilities that come with being major league players. There are new ingredients to consider some of them with a history of mixing well, like an Aaron Boone, and others with a track record of volatility, like Elijah Dukes.

Acta said he can get a feel for the team’s chemistry before the season.

“Yes, I can sense that in spring training,” he said.

Then, without speaking about any specific player, Acta talked about his job and the importance of clubhouse chemistry to do it.

“You get to that point where some of our guys that we’ve brought in … ‘Oh, he’ll be OK with Manny. Manny will fix him, or the clubhouse will fix him,’ ”Acta said. “Because you do need certain guys and sense that they’ll have to adjust. But that’s out there.

“Before you acquire a guy, there’s always a bunch of questions about how was he over there in their clubhouse, or is going to be able to be OK over here, all that kind of stuff. We have the luxury of not having any of those superstars that you want to call it. The guys that are real good, and our players are real humble and down to earth. I think the guys coming in will be able to like the guys and be able to adjust to it.”

Acta would have loved what happened in the Nationals clubhouse yesterday morning.

Garrett Mock, a Texas kid and one of the Nationals young pitching prospects, approached, Dukes, the kid from Tampa, Fla., and spent nearly a half hour talking to him. It was the first time they had ever met.

“I told him, I understand some things have happened that have been unfortunate for you to have to deal with,” Mock said. “But I don’t want you to feel like you’re alone here. It’s almost like the first day of school. You go and you don’t know anybody, so it’s kind of nervous. I told him, look man, if you ever feel like you want to just talk about baseball or if you want to go have lunch or dinner or whack golf balls in the wrong direction, whatever you feel like doing, don’t feel like you’re out here alone.

“I had a couple buddies of mine with the Devil Rays who said that guy has had some pretty unfortunate mishaps that have happened to him, but he’s a really good dude. I don’t know too much about it, but I think it’s a huge blessing for him to come over here, and I said if you ever need anything, let me know.”

Dukes said he already feels welcome in the clubhouse.

“These guys are welcoming me in with open arms,” he said. “That’s a great feeling. These guys are not that much older, and you can see they still have that mature attitude about guys that have never been through things. It’s like: ‘We’re reaching out to you more so than staying clear of you.’ That definitely made me feel good.”

It is naive to think that all that will straighten out a guy is a good baseball clubhouse.

The Nationals are not spending the money on a 24-hour-a-day babysitter for Dukes without good reason. He is there to watch him away from the field. But on the field and in the clubhouse this spring, Manny Acta will be doing a chemistry check, making sure that all the ingredients work, including the explosive ones.


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