Nationals Outfield Delivers, Finally
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Last night, one player the Washington Nationals hoped would hit 30 homers, Wily Mo Pe¿a, sat on the bench, still waiting for the first of those long balls. Elijah Dukes, who some in the organization believe could be the center fielder for the next decade, plopped down alongside him, his .042 average resting on his broad, tired shoulders.
"A couple of nights ago, I looked at the bench, and I'm like, 'What am I going to do?' " Manager Manny Acta said. "Pinch-hit one guy who's struggling for another guy who's struggling?"
So forgive the nearly audible sigh of relief when a ball off the bat of Lastings Milledge settled softly into the grass in right field at Nationals Park. It was, lo and behold, a two-run double from a Nationals outfielder, an almost unheard-of occurrence and the most significant hit in Washington's 4-0 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies.
"That was big for him -- even if he didn't hit it hard," Acta said.
Milledge thus provided the out-of-the-ordinary portion of the evening, ending a 3-for-30 tailspin with a 2-for-4 night that included a hard double to left. ("That's me," he said of the second hit.) The normal part of last night's win, which began a week-long homestand: Tim Redding's continued good form. The right-hander took a shutout into the seventh and lowered his ERA to 3.16.
"I'm comfortable in my own skin, which I haven't been for a while," said Redding, who hasn't allowed a run to Philadelphia in 13 1/3 innings this year. "I know what I'm capable of doing."
As do the Nationals, who have now had Redding for 25 starts this year and last, resulting in a 9-9 record and a 3.45 ERA. Consider it another way: Redding now has six victories, as many wins as Nationals outfielders have home runs. Thus, it had come to this for Acta and his outfielders: With starting right fielder Austin Kearns out for the second straight game with a swollen right elbow -- sparing the 25,394 in attendance a view of Kearns's unsightly .182 average -- he tried to spark his offense by inserting a pair of left-handed bench players, Rob Mackowiak and Willie Harris, into the starting lineup. Their averages: .179 and .176, respectively.
Consider this onslaught of numbers: Headed into last night, an average National League outfielder was hitting .264 with a .344 on-base percentage and a .429 slugging percentage. Nothing spectacular. Just average.
Nationals outfielders -- and this includes production only when they were playing in the outfield, not as pinch hitters -- were, let's just say, below average. Their .202 batting average was last in the majors, as was their .291 on-base percentage. And their .279 slugging percentage -- and no, that is not a misprint -- was not only last in baseball, not only .150 points lower than an average NL outfielder, but was 77 points lower than the 29th-best outfield in the majors.
Milledge, hitting .234 headed into the night, was hardly the only culprit. But he arrived in an offseason trade designed to spark the Nationals offense, not stagnate it. His only homer came in the second game of the season, 155 at-bats ago. Thus, he said, he lost some focus and fire.
"I've been too low-key, to be exact," Milledge said. "I really haven't had any fire ever since I was going through my funk. I didn't have any cockiness while I'm out there. No swagger, no nothing. . . . I didn't have any confidence."
So when Milledge got hold of a Brett Myers pitch with the bases loaded in the third, floating it over Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard, it produced a 3-0 lead and some measure of satisfaction, even as he tried to play down his slump. "When we're out there, your average is zero every game," Milledge said. Just don't take that literally.
That left the rest to Redding. After he labored through a 21-pitch first inning, stranding two men, he was efficient. The Phillies again put two men aboard in the third, but Redding got Howard and Geoff Jenkins to fly out.
Until the seventh, that was the last time the Phillies put two men on in an inning. When they did -- Carlos Ruiz's leadoff single followed by Jimmy Rollins's one-out walk -- Acta turned to his bullpen. This was not a situation in which he had to pick over poorly performing pieces. Sa¿l Rivera got the two key outs in the seventh, Luis Ayala pitched a perfect eighth and Joel Hanrahan mopped up in the ninth.
Thus, Milledge -- and the entire Nationals outfield -- had at least one moment in which potential equaled production.
"I know that I'll hit eventually," he said, "and I'll come out of the funk that I've been in."