Impatience a virtue

The Baltimore Sun

Viera, Fla. -- There may be plenty of questions surrounding his new ballclub, but Washington Nationals manager Manny Acta has a pointed one of his own.

Why? He asks it not once, not twice, but three times when told that some so-called baseball experts are predicting that the Nationals will lose 100 games in 2007.

After all, Acta figures the 2006 Nationals continually made mistakes and lost 91. As futile as life has been for the Nationals/Montreal Expos franchise, it hasn't lost 100 games since 1976. So triple-digit losses are not in Acta's plan.

"We can get better just by not doing the wrong things that we did here in the past," Acta said. "We led the league in errors [in 2006]. That's not going to happen. We were No. 1 in caught stealing. That's not going to happen again."

Acta, 38, has tried to change the attitude of the club since the day he first met with his players in February. Last season, he was on the coaching staff of the New York Mets, a team that fell one win short of the World Series. That club, he points out, was picked by many to finish behind the Atlanta Braves in the East.

So he relishes the underdog role. And believes he can foster success with a simple message: Prepare, play hard, work together and the wins will come.

At least on the surface, the Nationals are buying in - though they are without last season's best hitter, Alfonso Soriano (free agency), and most dependable starter, Livan Hernandez (August trade).

"I think it is a good mix, good ingredients put together: him being new as a manager and us having a lot of new guys," outfielder Ryan Church said. "The sky is the limit. Everybody is bashing us, saying we are going to be terrible. I don't think we are going to be that bad."

It's a common opinion within the Nationals' clubhouse.

"Somebody has to be in the paper as a horrible team, right? Of course," Nationals second baseman Felipe Lopez said. "But, me personally, I haven't heard anybody really stress about that. We are just going to go about our business and, come April, all that matters is how hard you work."

It also matters how well you pitch and catch the ball. The 2006 Nationals were terrible at both. They had the NL's worst ERA (5.03) and fielding percentage (.978).

The organization, led by president Stan Kasten and general manager Jim Bowden, attacked the pitching with a vengeance this offseason, signing a multitude of bargain-bin, six-year free agents.

"We could have brought in five or 10 tryout guys, injured guys or a guy who was misunderstood on his last team or a young guy. We could have done that," Kasten said. "But, in fact, we brought in [38 pitchers to camp]. It's an example of how we believe in going toward that 100 mph. Not 50 mph, not half-speed - 100 mph."

The quantity has been there, but the quality hasn't. For much of the spring, the leading candidates for the four available rotation spots failed to separate themselves. The winners - at least for now - are right-hander Shawn Hill, 25, who has two major league wins; right-hander Jason Simontacchi, 33, who has 20 career wins but none since 2003; left-hander Matt Chico, 23, who hasn't pitched above Double-A; and right-hander Jerome Williams, 25, who has a rotation-leading 23 big league victories.

An injury late in spring training to Simontacchi could open the door to two more pitchers who recorded no major league wins last season - Jason Bergmann and Levale Speigner - for a start or two.

They'll start behind right-hander John Patterson, 29, who pitched eight games and won one in an injury-marred 2006 season. He has never won more than nine games in a season, but he'll be acting as staff leader.

"How do you deal with four guys that are probably going to have their first full year in the big leagues? I don't know," Patterson said. "It's going to be an experience for all of us. The biggest thing is not to let these guys crumble under the pressure."

An improved defense, Acta said, should help the young pitchers. The talented Lopez, who along with Austin Kearns was acquired in a seven-player trade with the Cincinnati Reds last July, will be in his first full season with the club. He likely will be partnered up the middle with speedy shortstop Cristian Guzman, who missed all of 2006 after shoulder surgery.

There are other positives in Washington. A new stadium for 2008 should help generate more revenue. Kasten has a track record of building successful organizations through player development. And there's already a solid core of quality players 26 or younger in third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, All-Star closer Chad Cordero, Kearns and Lopez.

That's why the energetic Acta seems befuddled when others look at this 2007 club and see 100 losses. What he sees is promise, and a challenge to realize it.

"I am here to win. I'm the one with the plan," Acta said. "I won't be sitting here saying, 'It's OK, I'll win in three years when we get a new stadium and we can bring two or three superstars here.' I want to win right away."

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