A Fresh Outcome for the New-Look Nationals

Lastings Milledge, left, greets Elijah Dukes at the plate after Dukes scored on Jesús Flores's single in the first inning.
Lastings Milledge, left, greets Elijah Dukes at the plate after Dukes scored on Jesús Flores's single in the first inning. (By Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
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By Andrew Astleford
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 3, 2008

Reprinted from yesterday's late editions

It stood as a simple, mostly ignored symbol of disappointment. In the Washington Nationals' clubhouse, a palm-size magnetic schedule plastered on a white dry-erase board bore the evidence of a season of unmet expectations, each month crossed off with a sloppy "X" in black marker.

July, perhaps the most cruel month for the Nationals with just five wins in 24 tries, was somehow spared on the magnet before Friday night's game against the Cincinnati Reds at Nationals Park.

Friday night's 5-2 victory, however, brought an end to a nine-game losing streak for the Nationals and, with it, the arrival of some new faces -- second baseman Emilio Bonifacio, shortstop Alberto González -- in the clubhouse.

For Washington, now the youngest team in the major leagues, the youth movement's first chapter followed the desired script: Early, timely hitting spiced Odalis Pérez's solid start and led to victory.

"Good riddance to July," Manager Manny Acta said. "It was a July to forget. August started good. It was only a day, but I already feel better than July."

Elijah Dukes, fresh off the disabled list (knee), also played a key role. With one out in the second inning, Dukes smashed Cincinnati pitcher Homer Bailey's 85-mph change-up for a double to drive in Bonifacio and Willie Harris, giving Washington a 5-0 lead. Dukes finished 2 for 4 with a double and two RBI.

"I was feeling comfortable," Dukes said. Playing down in [Class] AAA [Columbus], I faced some good, hard competitive pitching. They basically prepared me down there. I was basically prepared to come up here and see their sliders and fastballs."

Bonifacio and González adapted well. The youthful duo went a combined 2 of 6 with two runs, an RBI, a stolen base and two walks. González, during his first at-bat in the second, smacked a double to right field. Two batters later, Bonifacio recorded his first hit and RBI with a single, later stealing second base and scoring on Dukes's double.

"It was a nice atmosphere, and it had nothing to do with the guys who left," Acta said. "But the guys who came in brought some energy. They're young guys with a lot of desire and full of life. They went out there and gave us a great effort for our first game."

General Manager Jim Bowden expects Bonifacio, 23, to become the Nationals' future at second base. Bonifacio, who finished 1 for 4, made his major league debut last year on the Arizona Diamondbacks and hit .200 in 35 at-bats.

Like Bonifacio, González comes to Washington hoping to make a name for himself. He spent the most recent part of his career overshadowed by big-money names in the Bronx. González began his professional career in the Diamondbacks' farm system, needing five years to rise from Class A South Bend before being traded to the Yankees as part of a four-player deal that brought pitcher Randy Johnson to Arizona last season. In 40 games with New York, González hit .152 in 66 at-bats. Yesterday, he had one hit and drew two walks.

"Those two kids, it was a great move by the team," Pérez said. "Bonifacio might be one of the fastest runners in baseball. It was good."

The Nationals made short work of Bailey. In the first inning, Jesús Flores sent a 95-mph fastball screaming to left field, driving in Harris and Dukes. The momentum carried into the second, when Dukes hit his two-run double. Bailey, who entered without a victory since April 30, was pulled after allowing seven hits in the first two innings.

Pérez entered having lost three of his last four starts, posting a 7.13 ERA during the stretch. He didn't need that much support last night.

"To see five runs in the first two innings, we have a great opportunity to win," Pérez said. "Whatever happened in the outing before this one, that's in the past. I don't even want to think about it."

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