- The Washington Times - Friday, July 17, 2009

The Washington Nationals fired Manny Acta during the All-Star break because they felt a new voice and a fresh outlook were needed after a wretched three months of baseball.

Too many times the Nationals’ front office had seen its club make mistakes in the field, on the bases and at the plate, producing the kind of bad baseball that makes a managerial change necessary.

So enter Jim Riggleman, who took the reins of the majors’ worst team Thursday hoping to elicit a better brand of ball from this team than his predecessor did. And then he watched the Nationals play the kind of bad baseball that landed him this interim gig in the first place.

In a 6-2 loss to the Chicago Cubs, the Nationals opened the Jim Riggleman era with a game that looked like dozens of vintage games from the Manny Acta era. They committed two errors that each led to runs, had a man picked off first base and saw their bullpen let a close game get out of hand.

Still sure you want this job on a permanent basis, Jim?

“Maybe I’m just excited about managing, but I feel good about the ballclub,” Riggleman said. “With our record, that’s maybe not what some fans want to hear. But I feel like we’re going to turn this thing around, and those guys in [the clubhouse] are going to be the reason. I know they care, and they’re going to get it done.”

The 56-year-old Rockville native is realistic about the situation he’s in, acknowledging Acta wasn’t to blame for the Nationals’ woes and admitting he isn’t likely to implement many changes to the previous manager’s strategy book.

And it didn’t take long Thursday night for the problems that got Acta fired to crop up, whether in the form of poor defense, poor relief pitching or a baserunning blunder.

The Cubs’ first run was unearned, made possible by Ryan Zimmerman’s throwing error on No. 8 hitter Koyie Hill’s routine bouncer to third. Zimmerman’s 13th error of the season was all too familiar - he took too much time to get his throw off and then airmailed it over Nick Johnson’s head, allowing Hill to advance to second and then take third on Rich Harden’s sacrifice bunt.

Washington starter John Lannan nearly escaped the jam, striking out Reed Johnson and then getting two quick strikes on Ryan Theriot. But Theriot reached down on Lannan’s 0-2 breaking ball and lined it to left field for an RBI double and the night’s first run.

“I shouldn’t have left that pitch up there 0-2,” Lannan said. “I should have really bore down and made the correct pitch.”

The left-hander and pseudo-ace of the Washington staff had a perfectly serviceable outing - two earned runs and seven hits in 6 2/3 innings - but was the victim again of a lack of offensive and defensive support. His record fell to 6-7 through little fault of his own.

“He gave us every opportunity,” Riggleman said.

The Nationals didn’t have many opportunities against Harden (6-6), who allowed just three hits in six strong innings. They needed a Nyjer Morgan stolen base coupled with a throwing error just to push a single run across against the right-hander.

“Definitely tip your hat to him,” left fielder Adam Dunn said. “He dominated us.”

Still, the game was there for the Nationals’ taking, still only 3-1 in the ninth before relievers Julian Tavarez (who didn’t retire a batter) and Sean Burnett (who booted a comebacker moments after entering) let the game get out of hand.

“I thought we played very well for seven innings, and then it got away from us,” Riggleman said. “I don’t think the score, when it was 6-1, was very indicative of how good a ballgame it was. But that’s not what we’re trying to achieve. We’re trying to win the ballgame, and we didn’t do it, so there’s really not a whole lot to feel good about.”

No, while the mood inside Washington’s clubhouse after this one was a bit more upbeat than after other recent losses, a sense of frustration still permeated, one that would have been there no matter who occupied the manager’s office.

“Yeah, there’s positives to take out of it. But at the end of the day, we’re not here to just get positives,” catcher Josh Bard said. “I mean, they’re paying us stinkin’ boatloads of money to go out there and win baseball games, and we’ve got to be better than that.

“We’re not going to make this ship right in three hours, but we’ve got to move forward.”

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