By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 29, 2008
Just minutes apart last night, two center fielders exited baseball games before they ended. In the third inning of a game in Washington, Lastings Milledge -- 23 years old, the Nationals' No. 3 hitter in each of the last 23 games -- hobbled off the field, face tightened by pain. Then, in the third inning of a minor league game in Erie, Pa., Roger Bernadina -- 24 years old, a player with zero major league at-bats -- left the field before his Class AA Harrisburg teammates.
One player's injury explained the other player's promotion. Milledge left yesterday's game, an eventual 9-1 Washington Nationals loss to Baltimore, with a right groin injury suffered while running after a Baltimore hit into the left-center gap. Mid-game, the Nationals had already made the transaction: Milledge, expected to miss two to four weeks, was headed to the disabled list. Bernadina, batting .325 with an Eastern League-leading 26 stolen bases, was on his way to town.
Milledge's injury typified an evening of sour moments. A 63-minute rain delay elongated Washington's misery. John Lannan's roughest start in months (five innings, seven runs, four earned) placed Washington in an early deficit. Many in the Nationals Park-record crowd of 39,479 fled for the exits in the sixth inning when thunder cracked and skies opened.
After the game, Milledge had already showered, changed and eaten. He moved slowly through the clubhouse. He called the injury disappointing, and admitted he felt a bit of pain. His teammates felt only the residual agony. After weeks of talking about a lineup deprived of its No. 3 hitter, Ryan Zimmerman, the Nationals suddenly face a new predicament. They had lost their second No. 3 hitter, too.
"Tough one," Manager Manny Acta said. "The kid was leading our club in RBI and he was making so much progress in center field. He was looking so good and looking comfortable hitting third and doing everything for us. Just tough. It's been that kind of year."
Bernadina will start today's series finale against Baltimore, Acta said. For the short-term future, he'll be the regular center fielder. Regular was the term that defined Milledge -- even when his average dipped or his fielding technique raised concerns.
"I've been pretty much in every game except for one game this year," he said. "I planned on playing in at least 160 games this year. It's tough for the team. I haven't been lighting the world on fire, [but] I've been playing pretty decent out there. It's another starter that goes down. It's kind of tough right now, the situation that we're in."
Milledge's injury aggravated the feeling of misfortune that has gripped Washington's season. Despite all the talk of injuries, and their detriment to the Nationals' lineup, the team had entered yesterday with a run of relatively good health. Not since June 3 had the Nationals placed a position player on the disabled list. Dating from June 4, the Nationals had used an identical 1-2-3 combination to start their lineup.
Because of the faith management has shown in him this year -- Milledge is batting .243 -- he has called this season the most enjoyable of his baseball career. "I've never had this much fun," he said.
The same inning when Washington lost its center fielder, it lost its grip on the game. In the third inning, when Lannan looked at catcher Jesús Flores, took the sign, nodded and delivered his first pitch to Alex Cintrón, the night, for Washington, was still full with promise. The Nationals led 1-0 because of a first-inning Milledge RBI single. Until just one batter earlier, Lannan had held Baltimore hitless.
Lannan hadn't yet misplayed the two balls -- one a comeback chopper, one an infield bloop -- that would allow the Orioles to take a 3-1 lead. He hadn't yet allowed the two home runs -- one to Luke Scott in the fourth, one to Ramón Hernández in the fifth -- that built a 7-1 Baltimore lead.
Lannan's first pitch to Cintrón was a line drive that just nipped the top of shortstop Cristian Guzmán's glove. The ball skidded toward the left field gap, where Milledge attempted to cut the ball off with a slide. The ball took one more skip toward the fence. Milledge tried to rise, then tumbled in an awkward skid. His ankle collapsed against the base of the fence. He hit the ground and grimaced. Left fielder Paul Lo Duca raised his right arm, signaling for help.
Milledge, walking alongside assistant trainer Mike McGowen, needed almost a minute to walk off the field.
By the time he reached the dugout, Manager Manny Acta had already taken a blue-and-white pen and crossed Milledge's name from the No. 3 spot on his lineup card.
"I don't know how long it's going to be," Milledge said. "But I'm going to tell you this. I'm going to rehab hard and try to get back."