- The Washington Times
Tuesday, September 2, 2008

It’s September, and baseball is all about numbers in September - how many games ahead, how many games behind, how many games separating the wild card teams, how many games left at home, how many on the road and on and on.

It’s no different for the Washington Nationals. It’s a numbers game for them right now, and the number that is most impressive for them is seven - seven straight wins after Monday afternoon’s 7-4 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies before a Labor Day crowd of 28,393 (not a great number).

You could argue, though, that the number most important for the Nationals is 100 - the amount of losses manager Manny Acta hopes to avoid this season.

Before yesterday’s game, Acta met the question of 100 losses head on. There may be just a one-game difference between 99 and 100 losses, but 100 marks a particular level of futility the manager hopes to avoid.

“I really don’t want to do it,” Acta said when asked whether the possibility of a 100-loss season stuck in his craw, so to speak. “I could always step back and say I am not going to be the first one or the last one and that greater coaches than myself have lost 100. But I really don’t want to do it.

“We’ll push hard and try to win as many games as we can. … That is a round number in front of us that we really don’t want to go for it. … You don’t want to be part of that,” Acta said.

A week ago, avoiding 100 losses would have been wishful thinking. The Nationals were 46-85 and coming home to face the Los Angeles Dodgers, who are in the thick of a division race in the National League West.

But the Nationals stunned the Dodgers with a three-game sweep, did the same to the woeful Braves and Monday beat the Phillies - who could look up on the scoreboard to see that the New York Mets, the team they trailed by one game in the NL East entering the day, had beaten the Milwaukee Brewers.

The change in the Nationals can be chalked up to the addition of some new and some familiar faces and the subtraction of others.

It’s hard not to notice how the purpose and energy of this team changed with the departure of Felipe Lopez and the absence of Dmitri Young. Both represented, for different reasons, a team with bloated, overpaid players who weren’t buying into what Acta was selling.

Lopez - and his fielding, baserunning and hustling errors - is long gone, but Young, who had a positive effect on this team in his comeback season of 2007, is expected to rejoin the major league club before the end of the year as he struggles to get into playing condition for the first time this season.

The return of Elijah Dukes and the departure of Austin Kearns (who became an automatic out in the middle of the lineup) to the disabled list has helped, too. The results of the Dukes experiment cannot be determined yet - the fear still exists that he will not be able to maintain control and function as major league player - but there is no denying his immense talent.

Acta, though, sees the team defense as perhaps being the most important part of his team’s resurgence. He has been pointing out to his team that it was a lack of commitment to defense that sent the quality of play spiraling downward.

“When we went south defensively, since we didn’t have a good offense, that is how we went down,” he said. “So it is good to point that out to them.”

He had two gems to point to yesterday - line-drive snares by Ryan Zimmerman at third base and Ronnie Belliard at first.

“We have been playing better defense, catching the ball, turning double plays, hitting the cut off men,” Belliard said. “Our pitching is doing a good job right now, and our situational hitting has been better. We are just playing better. We are just trying to finish strong.”

They are trying to finish strong enough to avoid 100 losses - which would equal the most of any team in a new ballpark in the Camden Yards era, set by the Pittsburgh Pirates when PNC Park opened in 2001.

Acta is right when he said there have been some good managers who have lost 100 games. Gene Mauch did it twice - once in this franchise’s first year in Montreal, losing 110 games. The only other 100-loss season in franchise history came in 1976, when the Expos lost 107 games managed by Karl Kuehl and Charlie Fox. And losing 100 games is hardly a novelty in Washington. The Senators lost 100 games or more nine times, including four straight from 1961 through 1964.

Acta would like to avoid that list. Win 10 of their final 24 games - 17 of which are against the Phillies, Mets and Florida Marlins, all locked into the NL East division race - and they will stop the losing at 99, which, like the 99-cent store, is a psychological number that has greater meaning that just the one that separates it from 100.

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