Acta Opts for Dunn, Milledge and Kearns in Nationals' Outfield

First baseman Adam Dunn, normally a left fielder, reaches over second baseman Ronnie Belliard to snag a popup last night against the Orioles.
First baseman Adam Dunn, normally a left fielder, reaches over second baseman Ronnie Belliard to snag a popup last night against the Orioles. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
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By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 5, 2009

Truth be told, Manny Acta would probably rather not be the one charged with solving the complex mathematical equation that has stumped the Washington Nationals all spring: divvying up roughly 2,800 plate appearances -- 162 games' worth at four positions -- among six veteran players who, to one degree or another, have legitimate claims to starting jobs.

But last night, in the Nationals' final tuneup before tomorrow's Opening Day in Florida, Acta made some headway in conquering the crooked numbers. Armed with a manager's most critical tools -- a gentle but firm hand, and a bottle of Wite-Out -- he began bringing some official order to a situation that could have gotten ugly, and that still might.

In perhaps the most significant decision, Acta chose to make veteran Austin Kearns his Opening Day right fielder, a move that relegates Elijah Dukes -- who is younger and more talented, but who is also more volatile and had by far the worse performance this spring -- to a bench role. The principals were informed of the decision about a half hour before the Nationals' 5-4 exhibition win over the Orioles in front of an announced crowd of 11,864 at Nationals Park.

"We told our players there was going to be competition," Acta said after the game, "and I think it would send the wrong message after he led all our outfielders in home runs and RBIs if we don't give him the job."

That the Nationals will apparently start the regular season with all five of the outfielders with whom they entered the spring -- starters Adam Dunn, Lastings Milledge and Kearns, and reserves Dukes and Josh Willingham -- must be considered an upset, given how untenable the situation has been from the beginning. And in part, it reflects the lack of available trade options for Kearns and/or Dukes, owing to the former's $8 million salary and the latter's reputation and history of off-field trouble.

"It's going to take a tremendous managing job by Manny to keep everyone sharp and keep them happy and focused," acting general manager Mike Rizzo said. "It's a job Manny has in front of him. We think there are going to be enough at-bats to keep everyone sharp and at their best."

Acta said Dukes took the news of his bench role "very well," though Dukes, through a team spokesman, declined a request to address the media. Meantime, Kearns, when asked his reaction, said, "Nothing. . . . I knew even if I wasn't starting here, I was good enough to be an everyday player."

Acta seemed eager to put his Opening Day lineup on the field last night -- a one-off jaunt home for the Nationals, who flew back to Florida immediately after the game.

But when first baseman Nick Johnson was a late pregame scratch, owing to a minor family matter that required his presence in Florida, Acta took the Wite-Out to his lineup, shifting Dunn to first base -- as he has signaled he may do occasionally -- and inserted Willingham in left.

Willingham responded with a monster game, smashing a grand slam off Orioles starter Alfredo Simon in the first, driving in the Nationals' go-ahead run with an RBI groundout in the seventh and making a superb diving catch in foul territory in the fifth. Afterward, he chose his words carefully when describing a playing-time situation he could have never envisioned when the Nationals acquired him from Florida in November.

"I feel I'm an established player and deserve to be playing every day somewhere," he said. "But that's not the way the chips have fallen this year. . . . It's not a matter of proving myself. I feel I've already proven myself."

Acta made clear the glut of outfielders will not be solved by platoons or a playing-time rotation. He has not promised Dukes or Willingham a certain number of starts per week. He appears more inclined to make two of his players very unhappy, rather than make all of them a little unhappy. But he also made clear remaining on the field is contingent upon producing.

"We have the options," Acta said, "and if anybody's not up to the task, then somebody else is going to go out there and play."

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