By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 26, 2008
LOS ANGELES, July 25 -- The value of Lastings Milledge's return from the disabled list Friday could be measured by his spot in the lineup, his spot in the outfield or his spot in the future.
After missing 20 games with a groin injury, Milledge rejoined the Washington Nationals for Friday's game and immediately helped on several fronts: The team received a No. 6 hitter and regained its center fielder, somebody who started that position in 79 of Washington's first 82 games.
But more than stabilizing Washington's present, Milledge's health -- he returned right on target, after missing four weeks -- helps his development. The 23-year-old's growth in the month before his injury was so substantial that expectations for Milledge continued to soar, post-injury, as if riding on their own inertia.
Entering spring training, for instance, some in Washington's front office weren't sold that Milledge could develop into a highly productive center fielder. Now, the team is convinced.
Of course, Milledge still must grow into the shoes the team so desperately wants him to fill. When his season was interrupted on June 28, he had a .245 average, 7 home runs and 32 RBI in 302 at-bats. Just less than a month later, his manager describes him as a centerpiece player.
"I see him as a middle-of-the-order guy who in the future can hit 25 home runs and drive in 100 runs," Manny Acta said.
To satisfy that vision, Milledge knows he needs at-bats, innings and patience. Entering the year, Milledge had started just 13 games in the majors in center field. It was apparent during the season's first two months. Milledge charged balls late. He turned routine flies into adventures.
"When I was named the starting center fielder on Opening Day," Milledge said, "I still had a lot of work to do because I hadn't played there for a year and a half. I'm very committed. Very committed to being the player everybody wants me to be. I feel like I will get there, and at the end of the day, everybody will be happy to be having me in center field. Whether I meet the expectations of what they wanted me to do this year? I don't know, we'll have to find out. But when it's all said and done, and I become a veteran, I think everybody will be happy."