By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 26, 2008
Neither frantic games nor desperate situations facilitate patience, which is why Elijah Dukes -- long overdue for a big moment, often overmatched by big pitchers -- took the time in the ninth inning yesterday to settle himself. Dukes stepped from the batter's box and exhaled. Have patience, he reminded himself. Stick with the plan.
Already that afternoon, the Washington Nationals had done much to upset their balance. They'd seized a 6-0 lead, collapsed into a 6-6 tie, and braced for a deflating loss.
But yesterday afternoon at Nationals Park, Dukes used patience to generate an even better end-all emotion. His ninth-inning walk -- an at-bat teammates called his best of the season -- created the winning run in a 7-6 victory against the Milwaukee Brewers and sparked a spontaneous, run-from-the-dugout celebration that consumed Dukes in a mob of red jerseys. The moment also spawned hope that Dukes, an everyday player who hasn't yet played like one, might develop from a light-hitting liability into an asset.
"A professional at-bat," teammate Dmitri Young called it. "He really came through for us."
"And not an easy guy to face right there," Aaron Boone said. "They count on [Guillermo] Mota."
Until yesterday, at least, several statistical thunderclouds -- especially a .105 average -- had overshadowed Dukes's primary batting virtue, his awareness of the strike zone. By the time Dukes batted in the ninth, Washington already had washed away its lead, ruined by a sixth inning that included the final fumes of starter Tim Redding, the ineffective relief of Saúl Rivera, and a 10-batter, six-run, six-hit Brewers rally.
The Nationals struggled to counterpunch. When Mota, with a mid-90s fastball, took the mound for the ninth, the Nationals had gone three innings without a hit. Productivity from the earlier innings, including a two-run Boone home run in the fifth, felt like something from another ballgame. Losing a game like this one, Manager Manny Acta said, would "really hurt."
Dukes took his turn against Mota with one out and nobody on. He'd spent the previous weeks fighting for a breakout, finding extra time to hit in the batting cages with coach Lenny Harris. The work emphasized two things, especially: resisting breaking pitches and hitting to the opposite field.
Dukes had called his struggles "mind-boggling," and expressed surprise that he hadn't broken a few helmets in disgust with himself. He'd never dealt with such acute failure, he said.
It was fitting, then, that Dukes saved his team from one of its most painful setbacks of the season. Against Mota, Dukes found a quick hole, swinging at a first-pitch fastball. He took two more balls and a called strike. He realized that Mota appeared to be over-throwing, because he saw a surplus of low fastballs.
"Normally that's what happens when a guy holds a fastball too tight, it ends up nose-diving in the dirt," Dukes said. "So I said, he's trying to throw the ball as hard as he can."
Dukes fought the frenzy with calm. The fifth and sixth pitches of the at-bat were fastballs, and Dukes looked at both of them. Then he trotted to first. His second walk of the game.
"A tremendous at-bat there," Acta said, "and [that] basically set the tone for the inning."
When the pinch-hitting Young followed with a single to right field, Dukes, officially 0 for 2, took off so quickly that he arrived at third base without a throw. Suddenly, Washington had the winning run 90 feet away, with just one out.
Milwaukee drew its infield in, and Dukes thought about the situation. He reminded himself that Mota had been throwing low -- a tendency that, with a winning run on third, can turn into a fatal problem.
Mota's first pitch to Felipe López, a breaking ball, spun in the dirt and bounced beyond catcher Mike Rivera. The ball kicked straight back and caromed off the screen. López looked at Dukes and waved his arms. Dukes needed no reminder.
By the time he touched home plate, the last step in a sprint, a dozen-odd teammates awaited near the on-deck circle. Lastings Milledge greeted Dukes with a hug. Within three seconds, the circle of red jerseys closed tight, and everybody else got a hand on him, too.
"It always feels good to get that winning run," Dukes said. "I get a fair amount of walks, too, when I'm patient at the plate. And when I'm patient at the plate, I start getting a lot of home runs and a lot of hits, too. So I know this is a sign for things to come."