- The Washington Times - Friday, May 22, 2009

When the Washington Nationals returned home one week ago after a mildly successful road trip, a positive vibe emanated from their clubhouse.

Seven straight losses later, all sense of optimism had vanished, so manager Manny Acta decided to close those clubhouse doors and meet with his entire roster.

The theme, as so often is the case with Acta, was one of encouragement. During the 30-minute session before batting practice Thursday afternoon, the manager reminded his players how well things were going only one week ago.

“We just wanted to make sure those guys were upbeat and their attitude was right,” Acta said. “I wanted to let them know that just a week ago they were a good team on the West Coast.”

Acta insists he hasn’t seen signs of complacency out of a club that entered Thursday’s game with a major league-worst 11-28 record. Rather, he has seen mounting frustration over the two facets that have plagued this team the most: relief pitching and defense.

He reminded his players that they need to stick together, picking one other up when something goes wrong. One of the members of the beleaguered bullpen, left-hander Ron Villone, pointed out how many losing streaks he has experienced in his 15 big league seasons.

“It’s a roller coaster,” Villone said. “It’s been on the downside, but today’s a new day. It’s got a chance to go up. That’s the only attitude I’m going to take. Whether I express it or someone else expresses it, that’s what needs to be done.”

Ready for rivalry

The first round of the “Battle of the Beltways” begins Friday night when the Baltimore Orioles make the short trip down to Nationals Park for the start of a three-game series.

The geographic rivalry hasn’t caught on like some of baseball’s other interleague matchups. But Acta said he believes the series took on new meaning last summer when the teams played in front of near-sellout crowds three straight days in June.

The final game of that series ended in dramatic fashion, with Ronnie Belliard hitting a two-run homer in the bottom of the 12th to bring Washington back from the dead to win 3-2.

“That was my favorite game of the season, when we won on the walk-off the last day,” Acta said. “The rivalry, it’s going to take time. We’re two teams that right now we’re not on top of our divisions, but it’s building up. It’s good for the game. It’s good for the area.”

Injury updates

Anderson Hernandez dislocated his right pinkie finger in the bottom of the fourth inning Thursday night and had to come out of the game. X-rays were negative, and Acta said the second baseman could be available to play as soon as Friday.

Meanwhile, catcher Jesus Flores (on the 15-day disabled list with a bruised left shoulder) is expected to go to Viera, Fla., on Monday to begin participating in baseball activities.

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