- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 15, 2009

On Sunday afternoon, after he had just taken reporters on a trip through a Washington Nationals loss for the 252nd and final time, Manny Acta closed his final news conference as Nationals manager with a prediction.

“We’re going to play better in the second half. I have no doubt about it,” Acta said. “We’re heading toward a better direction. The first month and a half of the season, it felt like we were winning once a week maybe. Since we started that series in New York [against the Yankees] and played good in interleague, most of those games we have lost, we have been right in there. I feel we’re going to play a lot better after the All-Star break.”

Acta hopped on a team charter for Dulles International Airport shortly afterward and was informed upon touching down in Virginia that the team had decided to fire him. And those words, cribbed from so many of Acta’s sunny postgame sentiments, now read like his epitaph.

Whether the Nationals can make them come true by improving on a 26-61 record remains to be seen. The source of Acta’s optimism, however, is clear.

The Nationals’ vaunted plan, now in its fourth season since the Lerner family bought the team, has yielded next to nothing in terms of position players climbing from the minors and sticking in the big leagues. The team’s front office believes, however, that pitching is a different story. Washington’s starting rotation has five hurlers, all 26 or under, two of them rookies and four of them products of the team’s farm system.

Several more pitch in the minor leagues, and should the Nationals sign No. 1 pick Stephen Strasburg, they might quickly add an ace to the top of that list.

The plan always was predicated on pitching, and pitching is one of the only reasons the Nationals have to be optimistic about the second half, which starts Thursday against the Chicago Cubs. Acta’s firing doesn’t take the Nationals out of flux.

They now have an interim manager (Jim Riggleman) and an acting general manager hoping he’ll get the permanent job (Mike Rizzo). Strasburg remains unsigned, and indications are that contact between the sides has been minimal at best - though commissioner Bud Selig said in his All-Star Game press luncheon Tuesday that he expects the Lerner family to make Strasburg “a very meaningful offer.” And the next two weeks could bring several trades in Rizzo’s effort to turn veterans with expiring contracts into serviceable parts for the future.

“There are times where it’s just tough to come in here and prepare yourself because you don’t know what’s going to happen that day,” said reliever Joe Beimel, who signed a one-year deal with the Nationals in spring training after pitching for the Dodgers in the NL Championship Series last season. “When you’re coming to the field and everybody in the clubhouse is expecting to win, it’s very easy to come do your job. At the same time, you can’t let the losing and all the negativity that comes with it get into your head.”

That’s where the starting pitching comes in. Team president Stan Kasten referenced it again during the press conference to announce Acta’s firing Monday, citing it as evidence the plan is working. And though most of the pitchers don’t yet have a long enough track record to suggest legitimacy, they’re showing promise.

John Lannan continues to build on his surprising 2008 season, winning six games in the first half with a 3.70 ERA and 11 quality starts in 18 appearances. The Opening Day starter is gradually growing into his role as the staff leader, making suggestions to rookie Craig Stammen and showing an ability to stop a losing streak with a big outing.

“He doesn’t want to say he’s our stopper right now, but he’s certainly thrown the ball well enough,” pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “He’s probably more vocal than all the other ones.”

Rookie Jordan Zimmermann has a 2.70 ERA since the beginning of June, and Stammen has posted a 3.27 ERA in his last five starts, including a 1.69 mark in two outings last week. Scott Olsen, the veteran of the staff, has had three solid outings since coming off the disabled list late last month.

The closeness of the starters - who sit down with McCatty, watch video of the previous night’s pitcher together and bounce ideas off one another - has gone hand in hand with their almost linear development. Now they will be joined by Garrett Mock, slated to join the team Thursday and replace Ross Detwiler.

That progress and promise of the rotation is the root of most of the Nationals’ optimism.

“For me, the highlights of the first half of the season hasn’t been any particular wins or home runs,” Kasten said Monday. “It’s been the maturation of a young starting rotation in addition to the realization there are more on the way. That’s what will make us ultimately successful. To that extent, it’s been a very fruitful and productive three years.”

Added Beimel: “It’s something I’m not going to pay much attention to, because I’m signed to play here. If they feel like they can trade me and get something in return that’s going to help out the organization, then so be it. But I’m not going to be waiting around for a trade.”

There’s no guarantee the Nationals will sign Strasburg by the Aug. 17 deadline, and they will face more big decisions after that - namely, the fates of Rizzo and Riggleman and whether to use some of the money saved from expiring contracts on a free agent or two.

But it all goes back to the pitching.

It’s why All-Star third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who signed a five-year, $45 million deal in April, can recall his comments from the day the deal was announced - “I don’t think if I didn’t have the trust in them that I would’ve done this deal,” he said - and have a stronger belief the Nationals can win.

“I’m more optimistic, I think,” Zimmerman said. “We’ve got five or six pitchers, especially once we sign Strasburg. I think from one to five, we could be one of the best rotations in the league. If you can do that with young guys that you’re not going to have to pay for three or four years and you can go out and fill in the pieces you need, that’s a big plus.”

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