In advance of the Washington Nationals hosting the New York Mets on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball at 8:00 pm ET this week on ESPN2 (ESPN Radio, ESPN Deportes), District Sports Page caught up with Manny Acta, in his first season as a commentator for the popular Baseball Tonight broadcast, which airs at 7:00 pm before the game.
The colorful and insightful Acta spoke about his enjoyment of television and media work, his possible future in the game, and his impressions of the Nats season.
It’s no surprise that many — including Acta, the former Nationals (and Indians) manager — picked the club to make their first appearance in the World Series before the season began. Predictions and expectations have a funny way of getting away from us at times, and the Nats have struggled most of the season under the weight of those lofty goals.
The Nationals are playing some of their best ball all season right now, and with Thursday night’s win over the Marlins, to complete a three-game sweep, they’ve cut the deficit in the wild card chase to 6 1/2 games behind the Reds, with a game in hand still.
For Acta, he sees most of the Nats problems on the offensive side of things and mentioned the bench as an area the team particularly struggled with this season. Below is a full transcript of Acta’s responses to our questions.
DSP would like to thank ESPN for making Acta available to us, and to Manny for taking the time to speak with us so freely.
DSP: This is your first season as a commentator for ESPN. How are you enjoying the new line of work?
MA: I’m loving it. I think I needed the break. It’s been outstanding for me. After working for 27 years uninterrupted, and especially the last six years when I was involved doing rebuilding jobs, I think it’s great and it keeps my faith in the game and has given me an opportunity to see the game from another angle so I’m enjoying it. I’m working with really good people so it’s been a great experience so far.
DSP: Do you see yourself pulling on the uniform again someday?
MA: Yes, it’s something that at some point it’s going to happen again. I would love another opportunity to manage again but I’m in a situation right now where I’d gone through six years of rebuilding and I’m just going to be patient now and just wait for the right opportunity. I’m just looking for an opportunity to be in a place where I can compete or have a chance to win. Having the job at ESPN gives me the comfort that I don’t need to jump into any uncomfortable situation.
DSP: Let’s get into the Nats here. What are your general impressions on the Nats this season?
MA: They’re killing my prediction! I had the club being in the World Series against the Tigers and I just didn’t see coming what’s going on right now back in spring training, coming from the season they had last year with all the talent that they have. But baseball is that way. You can project and you can expect but you can’t ever predict. A lot of things went wrong this year.
DSP: The Nationals are playing some of their best ball right now (winners of 14 of their last 19 games). Can they catch the Reds? [Ed.: DSP spoke with Acta before the Nats beat the Marlins Thursday night. They trail the Reds by 6 1/2 games with 29 to play.]
MA: Absolutely! It’s not impossible. You’ve got 30 games remaining and you’re only seven games back. It’s a little bit of an uphill battle, and it’s not only up to you now. You have to be dependent on what the other clubs do, especially since they don’t play the Reds the rest of the way. They have a chance to make a move. The schedule is in their favor. Right now the next 17 games are teams under .500. They need to take advantage of that, until they play the Braves again, then the last week of the season they play the Cards and then Arizona so that’s when things are going to be tough. But there are plenty of games left, so they have to take care of their own games and then you have to depend on somebody else to give you help here and there. Certainly seven games with 30 to go, it’s not impossible.
DSP: This season has been a bit of a surprise after winning 98 games last season. What has surprised you most (positive or disappointing) about the team?
MA: The disappointing part has been the inconsistent offense and the poor defense that they have. They’re bottom-five on defense but the offense… When the Astros score more runs than you have that’s something to worry about. I think that it has mainly been because two of their biggest bats haven’t been out there consistently because of injuries, the cases of Werth and Harper. Both are having good seasons but they’ve lost about 300 at bats between them because of their injuries.
Ian Desmond has been their MVP, leading them in just about every category. But at this point of the season, if the guy leading your team in RBIs has 64, you have some issues. Desmond’s been there the whole season, but [Adam] LaRoche hasn’t had a good season at all. This guy had a very good year last year — he’s got 55 RBIs to this point.
I think not having those two guys out there consistently have killed them, along with that bench – it hasn’t helped at all. They’ve struggled all year. Last year their bench was so good when those guys all really helped out — in the name of [Steve] Lombardozzi, and Tyler Moore and [Chad] Tracy and those guys. They have struggled. They have a bunch of guys sitting on the bench that have been hitting below .200 with the exception of Lombardozzi – still, he only has a .270 on base percentage. When those big boys came out of the lineup and the struggles of LaRoche, and then those guys came in they just couldn’t hold their own. That has really put a dent in their offense.
Their defense has continued to be bottom-five which doesn’t help. The only thing that has been there for them has been the pitching. You have [Stephen] Strasburg, [Jordan] Zimmermann, and Gio [Gonzalez] — those three guys have been very consistent throughout the first half and up until now. Dan Haren struggled the first half of the season, but he’s pitching well right now. They have an ERA below 4.00, and when you have an ERA below 4.00 you’re supposed to win a ton of games! When you score only 515 runs up to this point, that’s not enough runs to get you into the playoffs. They need to pick that up a notch.
DSP: Do Ryan Zimmerman’s struggles throwing the last two seasons and sudden lack of power (on pace for 17 home runs) concern you going forward?
MA: Well, he’s coming off that [shoulder] surgery and regardless of what people have said, it’s going to take him a little bit to get all that strength back. That being said, he’s not playing up to his capabilities, but he’s still hanging in there, especially with those other two guys not being in the lineup every day. The throwing, it has been an issue. He’s gotten better over time and hopefully he’ll build up his arm during the off-season and he’ll come back next year the guy that he was. But he hasn’t been the main problem there, with those guys missing from the lineup and just 55 RBIs from your first baseman.
DSP: Bryce Harper is completing his second full season in the Major Leagues and he’s still just 20 years old. What has impressed you about Harper’s development this season?
MA: He will be a superstar. This guy, at such an early age, he’s able to dominate games by himself. I’m really impressed by the way he has handled himself. Coming into the league a lot of people were expecting different results. Last year, now this year second time around, he has carried himself with a lot of class, on and off the field. He’s handled some of the things, like the injuries, that haven’t gone his way, really well. I do think that this kid is going to be the megastar that a lot of people are expecting him to be.
DSP: Stephen Strasburg has had a good season, but maybe not quite as dominant as people expected out of him in his first full season after Tommy John surgery and all the noise last season about “The Shutdown”. What has been your impression of him this season?
MA: Wins for pitchers, a lot of times, are overrated. There are so many things that pitchers can’t control. I don’t see the year that Stephen’s had not being a good one just because he doesn’t have a ton of “W”s. I think he’s done his part. Basically, the offense hasn’t been there for him — especially the first half of the season. He’s gone out there and his velocity might be a tick down from the surgery. But still, he’s a guy that goes out there and piles up quality innings. After that, it’s up to the offense to give him some runs and the defense to catch the ball to help him to win games. I think he’s done his part. I think he and Zimmermann at the top of that rotation are just tremendous. And then you add Gio! You’ve got three bona fide top starters. And all you have to do now is add something to the back end of it. I think Strasburg has done his job, especially coming back from that surgery and being shut down last season after 160 innings. I think the wins are irrelevant when it comes to the amount of quality innings that Strasburg has given the Nationals.
DSP: You’re GM of the Dominican League’s Los Tigres del Licey, so let’s play general manager for a bit. If you were Mike Rizzo, what might you look at as areas you’d consider upgrading next season for the Nats?
MA: You know, Mike is a very good baseball man and I’m sure that he’s looking to shore up the backside of that rotation. I think that [Ross] Detwiler was doing a good job at the beginning but he’s gotten hurt. I think he’s probably looking at revamping that bench, because that’s something that really played a role for them last year and it really hurt them this year. When a guy or two goes down in your lineup, or somebody is struggling, you need to have some of those guys on the bench that can pick them up. That’s a team that is built to win and in order for you to win you have to have some depth. Unfortunately that didn’t happen this season. You can look it up, last year a lot of guys probably had career years coming off the bench for that team. The young guys really contributed. It’s something that they’re going to have to address during the offseason.
DSP: With Davey Johnson’s impending retirement at the conclusion of the Nats season, do you have any ideas or opinions on the Nationals’ manager search this off-season?
MA: I don’t. I’m not keeping tabs on any of that stuff. I know it’s such a small circle – there are only 30 [MLB managers]. I know that Davey is not coming back and I’m sure they’re going to hire the right guy. It’s a very good situation. They’re built to win right now. They have a lot of guys inside of their own organization they think very highly of. I know that Mike is going to look everywhere in order to find the right guy for the Nationals.