- The Washington Times - Monday, September 29, 2008

PHILADELPHIA

This was a fitting place to end the Washington Nationals season - the 102nd loss coming by the score of 8-3 at the hands of the Philadelphia Phillies at Citizens Bank Park.

After all, this was where the beginning of the end started nearly six months ago - the place where everything that had been going so right suddenly went wrong and never stopped.

It was April 3, an afternoon game. Expectations were soaring after the dramatic opening of Nationals Park on March 30 with the ninth-inning home run by Ryan Zimmerman that resulted in a 3-2 win over the Atlanta Braves before a national television audience.

The next day in Philadelphia, the Nationals pummeled the Phillies, the favorites to win the National League East, 11-6. Then, after a day off, the Nationals found another way to win, this one a 1-0 victory over the powerful Phillies behind pitchers Tim Redding, Luis Ayala and Jon Rauch.

The Nationals were 3-0, hopes were rising and they were almost giddy when Washington scored five runs in the first inning in the fourth game of the season that April 3 afternoon. Jason Bergmann looked nearly unhittable on the mound and carried a 6-1 lead into the bottom of the sixth.

And then it all fell apart - the whole season.

Shane Victorino led off the inning by grounding out to first. Then Chase Utley singled to right. Ryan Howard singled to right. Pat Burrell singled to left. Geoff Jenkins singled to right. Saul Rivera relieved Bergmann and threw a wild pitch to Pedro Feliz, who then, of course, singled to center. Chris Coste singled to right. Greg Dobbs singled to right. Ray King came in and hit Jimmy Rollins with a pitch. Victorino, up again, singled to right.

Finally, Utley hit into an inning-ending double play, but the damage had been done. The Phillies led 7-6, and though the Nationals would come back to tie it, the Phillies scored the winning run in an 8-7 victory in the 10th inning.

Nothing was the same after that.

It started a nine-game losing streak, and though Nationals manager Manny Acta was not willing to concede the season was lost that day, he did admit it had an impact.

“For that whole losing streak, we talked about it every day, among us, the coaches,” Acta said. “It was such a dramatic change. We would talk about how if one thing or another had gone a different way, how it could have maybe changed things a little. We might have been able to carry some more momentum out of it. We had a lot of momentum up to that point. It seemed so positive.”

Jobs were lost that day - five of them, as it turns out. Before the game ended Sunday, Washington Nationals general manager Jim Bowden gathered reporters to confirm that coaches Pat Corrales, Lenny Harris, Tim Tolman, Ricardo Aponte and Jerry Morales would not be back next season. A slightly different season with a slightly different perception and maybe they’re back.

The only one who survived was pitching coach Randy St. Claire, and that’s good because it means more deer jerky next spring.

“We appreciate the hard work the coaches gave us the last couple years,” Bowden said. “We just felt that at this time a change was necessary.”

Of course, they are going to scour the ends of the earth to find only the best coaches.

“Manny Acta, myself and all the baseball operations front office are committed to hiring the best coaches in the game,” Bowden said.

Good luck with that. The reputation this organization now has won’t attract the best of anything, coaches included. The Cincinnati Reds alumni association probably had a resume party last night.

Firing coaches is usually the step an organization takes when it is one step away from firing the manager. That, of course, is a preposterous notion. Given the injuries, the lack of veteran clubhouse leadership and the head cases that helped set a negative tone for much of the season, Acta’s reason and calm kept it from being far worse.

But now here he is, heading home this winter with for one year left on his contract after his second season managing the Nationals. The club has another one-year option on Acta (it made a deal with him for two one-year options and picked up the one for next season last year). There has been no word whether the Lerner family, which gave Acta a bonus after last season, is willing to pick up the second option to keep him from being a lame-duck manager going into next season.

It should be a no-brainer, and it probably will be picked up.

“I hope I can wait until Christmas before I start worrying about next year and an extension,” Acta said after the game.

Who knows for sure, though? Who knows whether Bowden will be around to help make that decision? Maybe the April 3 loss still has some victims to claim.

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