- The Washington Times - Friday, April 10, 2009

MIAMI | The progress is in small chunks - batting practice sessions, opposing teams' pitch counts - that are not directly connected to the act of scoring runs, but Washington Nationals manager Manny Acta and hitting coach Rick Eckstein swear they see it.

They look at the ninth inning of Wednesday's 6-4 loss to the Florida Marlins not as a missed opportunity, but rather a sign that the team's hitters are doing the things that will be rewarded more often than not.

“We've had some good at-bats,” Eckstein said. “This game is about executing when the opportune time presents itself. Right now, we haven't taken advantage of those opportunities.”

The Nationals struggled in their season-opening series against the Marlins, getting swept in three games and scoring a combined 13 runs. Washington hit .236 in the series and had a .308 on-base percentage.

Acta and Eckstein are predisposed to optimism, but despite the low output they believe offense won't cost Washington many games.

And in some places, there is evidence a turnaround might be coming. The Nationals drew 10 walks Wednesday, forcing Marlins closer Matt Lindstrom to throw 32 pitches in the ninth inning. Right fielder Austin Kearns has continued to build on a strong spring, hitting .273 with a homer, four RBI and two walks in the first series. First baseman Nick Johnson went 4-for-8 in two starts, also drawing a walk in a pinch-hit appearance Wednesday.

In addition, the Nationals have gotten the immediate boost they expected from left fielder Adam Dunn, who drove in four runs in the opener and walked three times Wednesday.

“Just having Dunn and having Nick in the lineup will make a pitcher work hard,” Acta said. “Kearns is healthy, and we have some professional hitters now. Our lineup is deeper now. I like the way we swung the bat this whole series. We just got outpitched.”

Kearns' return could turn out to be one of the biggest changes in the lineup. He plodded through 2008, hitting .217 in 86 games, having surgery to remove loose bone fragments from his elbow and ending the year with a stress fracture in his left foot.

He worked much of the offseason with Eckstein to shorten his swing, which prevented him from getting to inside pitches at times last season. His home run Tuesday, which landed in the left-field upper deck at Dolphin Stadium, was a sign the adjustments are working.

“Most of his home runs the last couple of years were on off-speed stuff,” Acta said. “[On Tuesday], he was able to turn around on a mid-90s fastball and hit it a long way. That tells us that he's probably going to be back to his old self.”

If the lineup's struggles continue well into the season, though, it may be a sign that there's a different problem to be solved. The Nationals consider the acquisitions of Dunn and Josh Willingham, the health of Kearns and Johnson and the maturation of Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes as reasons why their lineup should be improved from the team that ranked 14th in the National League with 641 runs in 2008.

By the numbers, Washington's lineup doesn't have too many hitters who should scuffle for long periods of time. Six of the Nationals' eight Opening Day starters have at least three seasons of big league experience, and four have had 20-homer seasons.

There's an expectation that working counts, getting good at-bats and all the other things hitting scholars like to dissect won't be good enough. Maybe that in itself is a sign that Washington's lineup is different - that no one expects the offense to need a long-term crutch this year.

“I'm not worried about us battling. We're always going to battle. We're not going to be a team that ever lays down - ever,” Dunn said. “We're just not getting the big breaks and things like that.”

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