- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 14, 2009

All through the first half of the Washington Nationals’ ramshackle season, when fans clamored for the dismissal of Manny Acta and pundits cast him as a stoic unable to provide a much-needed jolt, the team’s front office stuck by its manager.

Acta’s ability to nurture developing young players, it was believed, outweighed the difficulty he had in coaxing wins from them.

At some point over the weekend, the balance of those two qualities tipped out of Acta’s favor. And on Monday morning, 2 1/2 years after proclaiming they had hired one of baseball’s rising managerial stars, the Nationals formally cut ties with Acta.

The team announced Monday it had fired Acta, naming bench coach Jim Riggleman the interim manager and pulling former bench coach Pat Corrales out of semi-retirement to resume the job he took on Acta’s staff before the 2007 season.

“This was a decision we finalized over the weekend with the management team here in Washington. We feel the team has underachieved. We feel we have a better ballclub than we’ve shown on the field,” acting general manager Mike Rizzo said. “[A 26-61 record] is unacceptable to the Lerner family, [team president] Stan Kasten and myself and the ballclub. We feel with a different voice and possibly a different feel in the clubhouse that we can have a more successful second half of the season.”

The team informed Acta of its decision on Sunday night, and he confirmed early Monday morning in an e-mail that he had been fired.

The 40-year-old’s tenure ends with a 158-252 record. His .385 winning percentage is the 10th worst in major league history.

“I want to thank the Washington Nationals for giving me the opportunity to be a major league manager. It was a great learning experience. I have no regrets,” Acta said in a statement e-mailed to fans and reporters. “As I move forward, I wish the Nationals all the best. I was very fortunate to work with and meet a lot of wonderful people while here.”

Acta, the youngest manager in the major leagues when he was hired, was given a two-year contract with a pair of one-year options and touted as a major piece in the Nationals’ rebuilding project. The team picked up his 2009 option at the end of the 2007 season but did not give Acta the same show of faith after last season and let every member of his coaching staff go except pitching coach Randy St. Claire. However, St. Claire was fired in early June.

Reports surfaced in mid-June that the Nationals were about to fire Acta and replace him with Riggleman. At that time, Kasten would not confirm or deny the reports. Though it always seemed Acta’s job status was uncertain, those close to the manager believed the front office had more confidence in him than rumors would dictate.

Even on Monday, the Nationals’ explanation for the move was full of mixed sentiments.

“You’re always being evaluated in this business, and getting off to such a slow start started the rumor mill going,” Rizzo said. “We always thought we were going to turn this thing around. When we found we couldn’t put anything together and be consistent, we felt the All-Star break was a prudent time to make a change.”

Acta spent two years as the New York Mets’ third-base coach before the Nationals hired him to replace Frank Robinson in 2006, and he finished fourth in the 2007 NL manager of the year vote for winning 73 games with a team many predicted could be one of the worst in major league history.

But the Nationals were beset with injuries in 2008, finishing with a league-worst 59-102 record, and Acta couldn’t get the Nationals playing consistently.

They started this season 0-7 and never won more than four games in a row. They followed their best stretch of the season, which included series wins over the Yankees and Blue Jays, with a 1-6 road trip against the Rockies and Astros that saw the Nationals lose three one-run games. In Friday’s loss in Houston, first baseman Nick Johnson dropped an easy pop-up while the Nationals had two runners thrown out at home plate. That defeat might have been the final straw.

The chief question in evaluating Acta was whether his laid-back demeanor gave young players too much leeway. He inherited a roster full of reclamation projects brought in by former GM Jim Bowden, which accounted for some of the team’s undisciplined play. The Nationals led the NL in errors last season and do again this year.

Several of those players have been shipped out or sent to the minors - and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, taking part in All-Star Game festivities on Monday in St. Louis, said the clubhouse has gotten better as a result. But Zimmerman said he did believe there were times when Acta could have showed more fire.

“Personally, I don’t need that kind of stuff, but I think a lot of players do,” Zimmerman said. “It’s so different from a player-to-player basis, so it’s hard for me to speak for everybody. But there were some points sometimes where some people have said some stuff on our team - not to him, obviously, but player-to-player - that they would’ve liked him to do more of that.”

Kasten, who worked with Bobby Cox for 14 seasons while he was the Atlanta Braves’ team president, has compared Acta’s demeanor to the future Hall of Famer several times and put him in that company again Monday.

“People didn’t see those times behind closed doors when [Acta] was a very different guy one-on-one with the team privately, out of the sight of the media, when he could be very forceful and direct,” Kasten said, “I value Manny’s essential qualities of being, as a veteran player said to me, the same guy every day. You always know where he is. That’s an important quality. I value that. I think that is a characteristic of managers who are successful on the long term.”

And so Acta leaves as the longest-tenured manager in Nationals history, still popular with some fans because of his upbeat personality but criticized by others for not taking a tougher tack with his floundering team.

“The reason it took so long was because we didn’t want to do this. We thought it was going to turn,” Kasten said. “We felt that way every week since April, I guess, and I still believe it now. … We want to see a better brand of play.”

• Staff writer Mark Zuckerman contributed to this report.

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