- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 16, 2009

Because Manny Acta was fired just as the All-Star break commenced, every member of the Washington Nationals’ roster had three days to grapple with the news, deal with its consequences and - most importantly - spend a lot of time in self-reflection.

By the time everyone reconvened at Nationals Park on Wednesday evening for a meeting with interim manager Jim Riggleman and workout in advance of the season’s second half, most had come to the same conclusion: They were responsible for their manager’s firing.

“It’s a terrible feeling,” left fielder Adam Dunn said. “Essentially, we got him fired because we didn’t perform up to expectations. That’s a tough pill to swallow.”

Universally liked and respected inside Washington’s clubhouse, Acta became the fall guy for a 26-61 outfit that knows it has underachieved in every aspect of the game this season.

Rumors of impending change had been swirling for two months. When it finally happened late Sunday night, the immediate jolt was quickly replaced with the understanding it was bound to occur before long.

“I mean, something had to happen,” first baseman Nick Johnson said. “We’re getting our [butts] kicked every night.”

Johnson, the lone remaining Nationals player who once wore the Montreal Expos uniform, has seen this franchise fade since arriving in the District more than four years ago. The handful of teammates who have been along nearly as long recognized this shake-up was a reflection of more than merely the last three months.

“I think it’s just the culmination of three unproductive seasons from three different sets of 25 players,” said reliever Jason Bergmann, one of the few who have appeared in a Nationals game every year since the club arrived in 2005. “I feel like this is the best team we’ve had, up and down the roster. Unfortunately, it happens to coincide with the worst record. But last year was bad. The year before that wasn’t good. There’s only so many years you can go through that before someone looks to change.”

So change was on display for the first time Wednesday, with Riggleman holding his first news conference, team meeting and workout as interim manager. The 56-year-old, who took over the Seattle Mariners in midseason last year and guided them to a 36-54 record, spoke to his players for nearly an hour before they took the field.

The overriding message: Give your complete effort at everything you do on and off the field. If you make a mistake, hustle to minimize the damage. Bring the same approach and intensity to defense as you do to hitting.

“I think that’s what we have to do as a team now,” outfielder Josh Willingham said. “Examine yourself, and if you’re giving your best effort every night and putting everything into the game, then better things are going to happen to this team.”

Phase 2 begins Thursday night against the Chicago Cubs. It’s too late to salvage this season completely, but it’s not too late to change the losing culture that has set in along South Capitol Street.

“You can’t throw away the first half. But you can play for something,” Dunn said. “My goal is: I want to beat up on every single team the way we got beat up on the first half.”

• Mark Zuckerman can be reached at mzuckerman@washingtontimes.com.

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