- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2009

MIAMI | If there was one point Manny Acta wanted to get across to his Washington Nationals during his annual pre-Opening Day meeting with players, it was this simple-yet-timeless sentiment often uttered in locker rooms and clubhouses throughout the sports world.

“You have to believe.”

Taking his cue from the late Tug McGraw, Acta made it known he believes the Nationals can win this year, and he wants every one of his players to feel the same way.

There are, of course, all sorts of reasons not to believe in the Nationals in 2009. They have an exceptionally inexperienced pitching staff. They play in one of the toughest divisions in baseball. And lest anyone forget, they did lose 102 games last year.

Acta, in his third season as manager, doesn’t want to hear any of those excuses. Long a believer in the power of positive thinking, he wants his players to do likewise.

“I think we do have the best team I’ve had here in three years,” he said. “You can’t worry about the other clubs. Baseball has shown in the last couple years that it’s not the one with the highest payroll or the one with superstars that win. You have to be yourself. Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re probably right.”

The Nationals will begin to find out just how much progress they’ve made Monday afternoon when they open the 162-game marathon against a Florida Marlins club that drubbed them last year to the tune of a 14-3 head-to-head record.

One game, of course, does not make or break a season. But by the end of a grueling month where the Nationals will face nothing but NL East opponents until April 30, this team should have a better idea where it stands in relation to its primary competitors.

Beginning Monday, the Nationals play 21 straight games against the Marlins, Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies and New York Mets. And if the last four seasons are any indication, this stretch will go a long way toward determining Washington’s ultimate fate.

Each of the last three seasons, the Nationals have gotten off to woeful starts and never recovered. In 2006, they opened up 2-9 en route to a 71-91 record. In 2007, they started 1-8 on their way to 73-89. And last season, after winning their first three in impressive fashion, they lost nine in a row, the first step toward a woeful 59-win finish.

A fast start, then, is most definitely one of this team’s goals.

“Everybody’s going to go through those stretches where they don’t play well,” first baseman Nick Johnson said. “But it would be nice to come out of the gates hot.”

Acta is careful not to put too much pressure on his troops to start strong. He cites the long nature of a baseball season and the ups and downs every team experiences, and he says the key is not to let those downs last too long.

But the manager does admit this opening stretch against the NL East is important.

“It’s a good test,” he said. “It’s definitely a good test.”

Acta’s Opening Day lineup boasts only two changes from a year ago - Adam Dunn in left field instead of Elijah Dukes and Jesus Flores behind the plate instead of Paul Lo Duca - but there is a sense within the clubhouse that this team will be different.

For one thing, everyone is healthy. For another, the bench is loaded with talented players who could step into the lineup should someone struggle or get hurt.

And there is a core group of young players - led by Ryan Zimmerman, Lastings Milledge, Flores and Dukes - that many feel are primed to come into their own.

“You know what: There’s a few guys on this team who are going to have some breakout years,” Dunn said.

It was for that reason Dunn chose to sign a two-year, $20 million with the Nationals two days before the start of spring training. He saw a talented, young team from his perch outside the organization. And after seeing it in person this spring, Washington’s new cleanup hitter became even more convinced he made the right choice.

Like his new manager, Dunn is ready to believe.

“The goal is not to compete,” he said. “It’s to win. If I didn’t feel like we were going to win, I wouldn’t have signed here. I think this team has a really legit chance of winning. I know people probably laugh when I say that, but it’s true.”

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