Nats' Outfielders Miss Their Chances

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 17, 2008

BALTIMORE, May 16 -- Left to right, for Friday's game at Camden Yards, the Washington Nationals used an outfield of Wily Mo Peña, Lastings Milledge and Elijah Dukes -- a trio with high potential and low batting averages. Each had been acquired by trade. Each had been with the team for less than a year. Each, if reward trumps risk, could anchor the team in the future.

For now, though, the Nationals play Peña, Milledge and Dukes by necessity, trading the short-term growing pains for long-term growth. On Friday, the experience they gained translated into a loss. A rare all-at-once opportunity for Washington's young outfielders became a case study of defensive shortcomings and bad situational hitting, and set the groundwork for a 5-3 defeat against the Baltimore Orioles.

When Manager Manny Acta filled out his lineup before the game, he played a hand that underscores the franchise's current strategy. Milledge and Dukes are both 23. Peña is 25. Whether they flourish or flounder, they will play. Sometimes, they will play games like this one.

Peña and Dukes, occupying the two last spots in the lineup, went a combined 0 for 7, and several times teamed up to extinguish Washington rallies. In the fourth, they made back-to-back outs after the Nationals had loaded the bases -- though to be fair, Dukes contributed a sacrifice fly to left. In the eighth inning, with one runner aboard and the Nationals trailing by two, Peña (now batting .200) and Dukes (now batting .048) both struck out.

One difference: Peña swung, Dukes didn't.

One similarity: Neither wished to talk about it following the game.

Still, for all the misfiring offense, Washington allowed Baltimore to take the lead for good because of defensive lapses. Brian Roberts jump-started the Orioles' fifth inning by lashing a Shawn Hill (0-1) pitch off the out-of-town scoreboard in right. Rather than playing it off the wall, Dukes over-pursued the ball. It rolled. And rolled. And so did Roberts -- all the way to third. The low, on-the-mark throw that Dukes cannoned to third, though late, provided a reminder of why many consider arm strength the lone aspect of his game that requires no progress.

"We just didn't play good defense today," Acta said. "That really hurt us."

The next Baltimore hitter, Melvin Mora, issued the outfielders another test. His sinking flare to right-center was treated by Milledge more as something to watch than something to chase, and by the time Milledge finally accelerated, it was too late. His diving attempt couldn't compensate for his poor jump, and the ball dropped in. Baltimore took the lead, 4-3.

Milledge, talking about the play following the game, at first dismissed any idea of culpability. Several questions later, he had found a different tone.

"They placed the ball where we weren't," he said at first. "They were playing a little shift, and we just weren't able to get to the ball."

One minute later, Milledge reversed his description.

"I should have had it," he said. "But again, the positioning -- I was not positioned in the right spot. It's just sometimes you're close to [the right fielder], you don't want to run into anybody, all kind of scenarios that run up. I'm playing over, [Dukes] is playing straight, and we're so close together. We look at each other, we don't want to run into each other, and then the ball falls. You know -- it's a lot of scenarios. Neither one of us called it. I have a lot to work on, and I'm not afraid to admit that."

When he joined the team this offseason, traded for outfielder Ryan Church and catcher Brian Schneider, Milledge knew immediately that he would become an everyday player. And more important, an everyday center fielder -- ready or not. The transition to a new position after playing the corner spots in New York became his greatest hindrance.

At the moment, Milledge has more natural defensive fielding ability than Peña and a greater track record at the plate than Dukes. But the duty to play every day is his alone.

"Milledge is our center fielder," Acta said. "And when he's going to play, he's going to play in center field. I think we made that clear before."

The Nationals are banking that the remainder of the season will clarify whether Milledge -- as well as Dukes and Peña, for that matter -- belong on the team for years more.

"We're all human," Milledge said. "Stuff happens. But we can't let that get us down. We've got a game tomorrow, got a game the next day after that. There are a lot of games ahead of us, and a lot more mistakes we're going to make."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company