Peña Injury Puts Focus on Nats' Depth

Wily Mo Peña, right, has an oblique injury, which could mean more playing time for Nationals outfielders Alex Escobar, left, and Elijah Dukes.
Wily Mo Peña, right, has an oblique injury, which could mean more playing time for Nationals outfielders Alex Escobar, left, and Elijah Dukes. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 15, 2008

VIERA, Fla., March 14 -- In the early innings of Friday's game against the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Nationals received word that Wily Mo Peña, the presumed starter in left field, will be out at least four weeks with a severely strained oblique muscle in his left side. By that point, Elijah Dukes, his most logical replacement, had already singled against the Indians.

But by the third inning, Dukes had hobbled off the field, the victim of a strained right hamstring. Though his injury is not deemed serious -- he said he will likely be able to play in "a day or two" -- the entire situation demonstrated both the depth the Nationals have developed and the delicate nature of making predictions about the roster and lineup for Opening Night with more than two weeks left in spring training.

"We all know, not one of these guys in the outfield is going to play 155 games," Manager Manny Acta said. "Somebody's going to get drilled. Somebody's going to pull a 'hammy.' It just happens."

How sure is Acta of that kind of baseball truism? He uttered it just minutes after 8 a.m., hours before the club received word on the severity of Peña's injury, long before Dukes slid into second and came up clutching the back of his right leg.

When he recovers, Dukes, a supremely talented player with a history of legal and personal problems that have hindered his development, will likely be thrust not only into the starting lineup, but into the spotlight of a March 30 opener that will be broadcast nationally. Since acquiring him in a trade with Tampa Bay in December, the Nationals have taken extraordinary steps to bring Dukes along slowly. Friday, aware that another player's misfortune could grant him a starting job, he handled the situation gracefully.

"We're a team, and if he's not ready, then hopefully I can be in there to fill in," Dukes said. "That's the good thing about having somebody behind you that you know that can fill in for you and you don't have to rush your way back. You can take your time and come back healthy. He understands that, and I understand that. When he comes back, I'll probably be the fourth [outfielder] again. We'll see what happens."

Peña's injury is deflating for the club. After acquiring him in a trade with Boston last August, the Nationals intended to let the powerful 26-year-old slugger -- who has never had more than 336 at-bats in a season -- play every day. But Wednesday, he strained his oblique muscle while taking batting practice. Friday, an MRI exam revealed a Grade 2 strain, which a club spokesman described as "a significant tear." He will be limited to a "very low level of activity.

"It's disappointing, because finally, we were willing to give the guy the opportunity to get 500 at-bats to see what he's able to do," Acta said. "And now, another year is going to go by and next year, we're probably going to be hearing the same thing about it. It's just unfortunate."

Peña, who was pulled from a card game in the clubhouse to receive the news, was devastated. He was well aware of the chance he was about to get, one he has never before been granted. Though he originally thought the injury might keep him out two weeks, he feels severe, sharp pain even when he inhales quickly. When he found out the diagnosis, he immediately called family members "I think that this year I was going to get the opportunity to be playing every day and be in the first day, Opening Day," Peña said. "I was thinking about it all the time, and now it's not going to happen. I can't believe it. My mind, it's like gone away right now."

Dukes, 23, will get most of the work in left field over the final two weeks of spring training. The Nationals also have Alex Escobar, a perennial prospect who has spent almost his entire career battling injuries, as well as defensive standout Ryan Langerhans, veteran utilitymen Rob Mackowiak and Willie Harris and Garrett Guzman, a Rule 5 draft pick who is hitting .231 in 10 games here.

But before he can take over for Peña, Dukes will have to overcome his hamstring injury. It occurred in the third inning of Friday's 8-4 victory over the Indians. Dukes walked, and Dmitri Young followed with a grounder to second. Dukes -- who has played exceptionally hard since he arrived here -- slid into second, and Indians shortstop Danny Sandoval dropped the ball. Dukes got up immediately, clutching his leg.

"It was almost like a little strain, cramp . . . feeling," Dukes said. "Maybe it came from just sweating a lot. I don't know what it actually came from. I know that I'll be ready within a day or two. It's just a little soreness right now."

Dukes hit .190 with 10 homers in 184 at-bats with the Rays in 2007. But that season, like his seasons in the minors, was cut short by suspension. He has never played more than 120 games in a professional season. So far, club officials are satisfied with Dukes's behavior.

"I haven't had a single negative thing from Jim [Bowden, the general manager] or Manny," team president Stan Kasten said Friday.

Dukes, too, said he was happy. And he sounded prepared for whatever role Acta assigns him in Peña's absence.

"Who knows what happens when I get my chances to go in?" Dukes said. "I'm ready to get in there. When he's not in there, I'm going to go in there and play hard."

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