- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 2, 2009

They own the worst record in the major leagues, they’ve lost 18 of their last 21 games, and they’re on pace to challenge baseball’s record for most losses in a season.

And to think, the Washington Nationals thought they’d hit rock bottom a year ago when they lost 102 games.

Two months into this 2009 season, the Nationals are setting new benchmarks for futility. Having just been swept during a six-game road trip to New York and Philadelphia, they return to Nationals Park on Tuesday with a 13-36 record, the majors’ worst pitching staff, the majors’ worst defense and a dwindling but vitriolic fan base demanding change.

In the middle of it all, Washington’s players, coaches and front-office officials are left trying to convince themselves that things will get better, even as they come to the realization that it’s too late to salvage this season.

“It is difficult. It’s frustrating,” said Mike Rizzo, the club’s acting general manager since scandal-tainted Jim Bowden resigned March 1. “Not only to me, but to [manager] Manny [Acta], the staff, the players themselves. Nobody wants to go through this.”

How the Nationals got to this point - on pace to lose 119 games, just one fewer than the modern benchmark for failure established by the 1962 New York Mets - baffles nearly everyone within the organization. They knew this club had its flaws entering the season, most notably a shaky bullpen. But consensus was that the team had made far more positive strides in other areas, and the result would be more wins.

But Washington opened the year with seven straight losses, and everything has spiraled downward from there. Last week’s 0-6 performance against the top two competitors in the National League East division (the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies) confirmed to many within the clubhouse how long the road ahead remains.

“This trip is basically telling us that we have a lot of work to do in order to catch up with these two clubs in our division,” Acta said.

The challenge now facing the Nationals is how to continue playing with effort and enthusiasm and to not simply accept the fact that their season is a lost cause.

The players insist that won’t be a problem.

“I don’t think it ever gets to a point where you feel like: ‘Why am I even coming to the ballpark?’ No, you come to the ballpark every day to win,” outfielder Josh Willingham said. “If everybody in here doesn’t think we can turn it around, then why are we even showing up? We’re not that far away, I don’t think. We just have to have everybody stay together and believe that we can do it.”

The stench of this losing stretch has left many fans calling for Acta’s dismissal on Internet message boards and radio call-in shows. The 40-year-old manager is in his third season, having accrued a 145-227 record over that period, and the club has shown no inclination to pick up his contract option for 2010.

Acta has made private reference to his shaky job status to confidants in recent weeks and has suggested that he knows it’s unlikely he’ll survive beyond this season. The manager, though, continues to have strong support from all corners of the organization, from the Lerner ownership group that hired him in November 2006 to the acting general manager who inherited him this spring to the players on his roster.

“Manny is not making errors,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “Manny isn’t not turning double plays. He’s not striking out. When it comes down to it, it’s each and every person’s fault in this room. Individually we all have to do better.”

Asked directly about Acta’s standing within the organization on Sunday, Rizzo pointed out that Washington’s players clearly haven’t given up on their leader.

“The manager is judged by how the players react,” Rizzo said. “The effort level is there. The respect level is there.”

He did add that “we’re constantly evaluating everybody in the organization. We’ll evaluate it, and decisions are going to be made.”

Players ultimately realize responsibility and blame lies on themselves. For all the talk of an improved roster, a promising young pitching staff and the overall development of the franchise, the Nationals know things won’t get better until they actually start playing better.

“I think some people need to look in the mirror and realize if they don’t make a change, if they don’t continue to work and get better, then somebody else is going to get a shot,” Zimmerman said. “Because what do people have to lose around here? If they bring somebody in who’s never played before, it’s not like we’re going to lose more games.”

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