Lastings Milledge's Struggles Persist at Plate, in Field

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 8, 2009

MIAMI, April 7 -- The tally for Lastings Milledge didn't get any better a day later: another 0 for 4, another deep ball he couldn't run down.

Still trying to master the art of covering center field, Milledge also has struggled mightily as the Washington Nationals' newly minted leadoff man. In the Nationals' first two losses, Milledge has achieved little other than frustration.

"I'm supposed to be the guy who gets things started," Milledge said after Tuesday's 8-3 loss to the Florida Marlins at Dolphin Stadium. "It's not happening now."

Milledge's performance has perplexed Nationals outfield instructor Marquis Grissom, a four-time Gold Glove outfielder who also was among the game's best leadoff men during his 17-year career.

"I don't know if it's the lighting or he's nervous," Grissom said, "or what it is."

In Monday's opener, Milledge couldn't catch up to a ball hit by Emilio Bonifacio that turned into an inside-the-park home run. A day later, Bonifacio smacked a similar ball that Milledge dived for but missed. He ended up with a triple.

"He just needs to practice more," Grissom said. "Practice, practice, practice."

Center field isn't new for Milledge, who moved there last season after playing mostly left and right field for the New York Mets in 2006 and 2007. But Milledge does not look comfortable.

Grissom said Milledge made plenty of progress during spring training going to his left and right, but Bonifacio exploited a lingering weakness: balls hit directly over Milledge's head. On Monday, Grissom said, Milledge hurt himself by failing to account for a strong wind blowing out of the park. Tuesday, he said, Milledge simply got a bad jump.

"All of a sudden you don't just become a center fielder; it's going to take a lot of work," Grissom said. "Sometimes it takes two years, sometimes it takes 10 years, sometimes you never get it. He has the ability to be a good center fielder, but you can't teach instinct."

Milledge shrugged off the balls over his head in center field -- as did Manager Manny Acta, who noted that the balls were hard hits -- but admitted being anxious about reaching base.

"I'm getting burnt by one player," Milledge said about Bonifacio. "The report is to play him shallow. With two strikes on him he's been able to put good wood on the ball.

"The key thing [for me] is getting a hit, getting on base."

Grissom said he kept reminding Milledge, who struck out twice and walked once Tuesday, that he really is only the leadoff hitter once a game, at the start. He said he thought Milledge was too selective Tuesday, taking pitches when he should be swinging.

"Once he gets out of that [thinking], 'I gotta take a pitch, I gotta take a pitch,' he'll be fine," Grissom said. "I got that much confidence in the guy. He's going to hit and play good defense."

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