By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 11, 2008
NEW YORK, Sept. 10 -- Elijah Dukes walked off the field Wednesday night, once and for all altering the manner in which the Washington Nationals left Shea Stadium. No longer did the boisterous crowd of 52,431 recognize a visiting team going down with a fight. Instead, the crowd saw only a visiting player just looking for a fight. They saw Dukes in his most exaggerated form, on a night when he displayed plenty of his power and little of his restraint.
With New York's wild 13-10 victory against Washington just two outs from completion, Dukes, just retired on a groundout to second, headed back to the dugout under a rainstorm of boos. He raised his arms, as if trying to amp the animosity. Then, he blew the crowd a kiss. With that, Dukes slipped into the dugout, capping a game that, perhaps better than any other this season, indicated all of the outfielder's allure and downside.
He went 2 for 4, with a double and a home run. He also had several turbulent moments: In the fourth, he responded to an inside pitch from New York's Mike Pelfrey with an aggressive stare-down. He later made a crotch gesture to the crowd.
Asked if Dukes would face disciplinary action from the team, Manager Manny Acta said, "I'm not anticipating any of that, but the day hasn't even finished yet, and we have to think things through and go from there."
"I think he had a very good game; he hit a home run and a double," Acta added. "Everybody knows he has worked very hard this year and the Nationals have worked very hard with him to work with his temper, and he's been great the whole season. It's unfortunate what happened tonight, but he's human."
Dukes declined to comment after the game, saying, "What the [heck] is there to talk about?"
There was a lot, even when disqualifying the 24-year-old's involvement. Though Washington lost its second straight at Shea, the Nationals continued a run of unpredictable, slugging baseball. They came back from 7-1 down to tie it at 7. They came back from four down to within one, 11-10. But they couldn't counter New York's final surge, despite two home runs and five RBI from Cristian Guzmán.
For the second game in a row, Washington's pitching abandoned it. Starter Odalis Pérez allowed seven runs (six earned) in three innings. Two of the Nationals' more reliable relievers, Saúl Rivera and Joel Hanrahan, pitched the last two innings, when New York finally ran away with it.
But afterward, all the talk was about Dukes, who ignited the game by his response to an inside pitch when New York had a 7-1 grip on things.
"He's an emotional player, but I don't know if there's really a place for that in this kind of game," teammate Ryan Zimmerman said. "But he's a great player. He's got a lot to learn, but he showed what kind of talent he has tonight, too."
The first pitch Pelfrey threw to Dukes in the fourth zipped inside, a few inches above the waist. The fastball just missed the loose fabric of Dukes's jersey. Dukes took several aggressive steps toward Pelfrey. He glowered, with a little screaming mixed in, and aimed his eyes at a pitcher now just 45 feet away. Mets catcher Brian Schneider and home plate umpire Doug Eddings stepped in front of Dukes. Acta and hitting coach Lenny Harris sprang from the Washington dugout. There was a fire to put out at the home plate circle, and it needed manpower.
Several minutes passed before Dukes reentered the batter's box, and when he did, the night had a new energy, Dukes its live wire. Eddings had issued warnings to both benches. With the count 1-2 in that same at-bat, Dukes pounded a slider down the third base line for a double. When he scored two batters later, Dukes, just before returning to the Nationals' dugout, seemed to make a hand motion toward his crotch. The Nationals, in their final game at Shea, had given the stadium its latest public enemy.
"He was upset I guess," Pelfrey said. "I wasn't trying to hit the guy. It happened and he kind of started flipping out and I tried to tell him, 'Why would I hit you, dude?' I don't think he cared too much. He was kind of mad."
When Dukes came to bat again in the fifth, a full-count pitch from Pelfrey brushed the inside of Dukes's jersey, sending him to first. He walked to first without incident.
Said Lastings Milledge: "Don't make [Dukes] out to be a bad guy. The guy loves the game. He plays the game hard. I don't think he did anything wrong."
The game's first innings had suggested that only the score itself would get out of control. Dukes hit a towering home run to deep left off Pelfrey in the second, tying the game at 1, but Pérez, in his third and final inning, positioned his team for only two options: Either it would have a long night, or a long comeback. After Pérez recorded the first out of the inning, seven New York batters reached base. Pérez threw 44 pitches in the inning, including 15 to Pelfrey, whom he twice struck out.