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Late burst doesn't benefit Nationals

Late burst doesn't benefit Nationals

WASHINGTON -- Before the 2009 season started, the Nationals believed they would be better than last year's team, which lost 102 games. Acquiring Adam Dunn, Scott Olsen and Josh Willingham was the impetus for that thinking.

Washington also thought a healthy Ryan Zimmerman would make a world of difference, offensively and defensively.

But the season turned out to be the worst in team history. The Nationals lost 103 games, and will get the first pick in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft for the second consecutive season.

A struggling pitching staff and defensive lapses were the main reasons for the team's woes.

If there's one silver lining to the season, it's that the Nationals played better baseball under interim manager Jim Riggleman, who still doesn't know if he will return next season.

General manager Mike Rizzo made it clear that he wanted more of an old-school manager, and Riggleman did everything he could to win ballgames, manufacturing runs and giving pitchers quick hooks if he felt they couldn't get the job done.

Rizzo recently told the media that Riggleman did a great job after he replaced Manny Acta.

"I think Riggleman really did a good job handling the ballclub after the All-Star break," Rizzo said. "I think he put us on pace to really focus and bear down on the fundamentals of the game -- to play cleaner and more efficient ballgames. He had the players playing at a high level. I think he has done the best job he could with the ability level that he has.

"This is the evaluating time of the year. We are all being evaluated, Jim including. Jim has done a great job. It's going to be an intense offseason and a busy one. The ultimate goal is to make us a better ballclub."

Record: 59-103, fifth place in National League East.

Defining moment: It came on June 30, when Rizzo made the future brighter when he acquired center fielder Nyjer Morgan and reliever Sean Burnett from the Pirates for outfielder Lastings Milledge and right-hander Joel Hanrahan. So far, it's turning out to be a steal in favor of the Nationals. Morgan became an instant sensation, hitting .351 with one homer, 17 RBIs and 24 stolen bases at the top of the lineup. Burnett stabilized a below-average bullpen. Known as a lefty specialist, Burnett was even facing right-handers in the late innings.

What went right: Riggleman took over as the manager after the All-Star break, and the Nationals played harder and mostly mistake-free baseball. Unlike past years in Nationals history, Riggleman is one skipper who held players accountable for mistakes they made on the field. Case in point: on July 24, Riggleman was not happy after a 6-2 loss to the Padres, frustrated with his players' effort. It didn't help that Washington made four errors and committed a passed ball in the outcome. He reamed them out, and the Nats went on to win 12 out of their next 14 games.

What went wrong: It looked like the Nationals would avoid 100 losses for the second consecutive season, but they received devastating news on Aug. 27 after their 5-4 victory over the Cubs. Morgan was placed on the disabled list due to a broken left hand. Morgan hurt his hand sliding headfirst into third base on a stolen-base attempt in the first inning against the Cubs, and he left the game after scoring on a double by Cristian Guzman and was replaced by Willie Harris. After Morgan's injury, the Nationals went 13-21 the rest of the way.

Biggest surprise: Losing 100 games for the second consecutive year. They had better players -- Dunn, Willingham, Olsen and a healthy Zimmerman -- on the roster, but below-average pitching -- relievers and starters -- and defense put the Nationals more than 40 games under .500.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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