- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 23, 2009

They had lost four in a row, blowing late leads each time. Their manager was reportedly on the verge of being fired. Then they beat the sport’s most storied franchise and did it again after waiting out a 5 1/2-hour rain delay. Two more wins against a quality opponent ran the winning streak to a season-high four games. And suddenly the manager’s status was no longer in question.

The Washington Nationals may have a better week this season, but it’s hard to believe they will experience a more eventful seven-day stretch than the one they just completed. In such a short span, the Nationals morphed from a franchise in disarray and on the brink of major change into an inspired young club finally showing the signs of progress that had been absent for 2 1/2 months.

It may not have had any tangible effect on the standings - with a 20-47 record, Washington still languishes well behind all 29 other major league clubs - but the events of the past week did have a tangible effect on the mood inside a clubhouse that had been down in the dumps for some time.

As reliever Joel Hanrahan said: “It was a great week for us.”

The four-game winning streak, featuring back-to-back thrillers at Yankee Stadium and a pair of extra-inning home victories over the Toronto Blue Jays, confirmed to the Nationals and their frustrated fans what most were having a hard time believing: This team is capable of playing good baseball.

The pitching staff came together and held the opposition to six runs in a four-game stretch, with both the inexperienced starting rotation and the remade, veteran bullpen chipping in. The offense, despite a disturbing trend of leaving far too many men in scoring position, managed to string together enough clutch hits. Perhaps most notably, the majors’ worst defensive team finally helped the club’s cause rather than hinder it.

“I think this week has been the best that we have executed as a ballclub,” catcher Josh Bard said. “We’ve been pretty steady offensively, but we caught the baseball, and we made some pitches. That’s the big separator for me.”

And thanks to all that, Manny Acta likely won’t be facing questions about his job status for at least a little while. Washington’s third-year manager - whose 2010 option has yet to be picked up - knew his days might be numbered when his team got off to a horrible start and pitching coach Randy St. Claire was fired June 2. But the gas really was turned up June 13 when Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal reported the Nationals had decided to dismiss Acta and replace him with bench coach Jim Riggleman.

Acta met with acting general manager Mike Rizzo and team president Stan Kasten later that day, and the duo insisted the report was false, but there was only one way to ensure the heat would be turned down: The Nationals had to win at least one game at Yankee Stadium. When they won two, then added two more at home against the Blue Jays, the story died down and Acta’s supporters felt a bit of relief.

Is it possible the Nationals came together and won for their manager?

“They’re not doing anything for me,” Acta said. “They’re not doing anything for themselves. It’s for the club. They’ve done that for the two and a half years I’ve been here. I don’t think they need any extra motivation, other than to be better and win ballgames.”

So the Washington club that Tuesday night faces another formidable opponent - the AL East-leading Boston Red Sox - will be a more confident and more relaxed club than the one that went to New York a week ago.

The season hasn’t been saved by any stretch of the imagination - “You have to continue to play well because you can fall right back into it in a week,” Acta said - but it has taken on a positive tone for the first time in a long time.



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