Elijah Dukes of the Washington Nationals Is Beginning to Right Himself

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 9, 2009

MIAMI, April 8 -- He had just taken two huge cuts that met nothing but air, missing a slow curveball and a mid-90s fastball with rips that set him back on his heels. But unlike spring training, when Elijah Dukes struck out more than four times in every 10 at-bats, he righted himself in the ninth inning of Wednesday's 6-4 loss to the Florida Marlins.

Facing a 2-2 count, Dukes blasted a 96-mph fastball from pitcher Matt Lindstrom into left field, collecting a hard-hit single that kicked off a feisty, albeit ultimately unsuccessful, rally at Dolphin Stadium.

Though the single did not stave off the Nationals' third straight loss or prevent misery from mounting after another starting pitching collapse, Dukes's play provided a glimmer of optimism as the team attempts to regroup for Friday's series in Atlanta.

Given the chance to start in place of Lastings Milledge in center field, Dukes went 1 for 3 and scored a run. He also walked twice and ran down a deep ball in center field -- a problem for Milledge in the first two games.

"He's going to get plenty of at-bats in a season of 162 games; he's going to play some center field and some right field and some left field here and there," Nationals Manager Manny Acta said. "He'll have his at-bats, and we'll put out the best team that's going to help us win."

That could be Dukes, Acta added, "once he gets out of his slump and if anybody else doesn't step up."

Expected at the start of spring training to win a starting outfield slot, Dukes played his way to the bench with an abysmal six weeks. He hit .212, struck out 22 times and managed just six RBI in 52 at-bats.

Acta, it appears, would like to see Dukes force his way onto the field. The only question: Where will he land? As a starter in center field? As a fourth outfielder who spells the regulars at each of the three outfield slots?

Milledge went hitless and failed to run down a pair of balls hit over his head in center field in the first two games. Left fielder Adam Dunn (who played first base in Wednesday's game) is far more valued for his power than his defensive ability, and right fielder Austin Kearns was short last season on the former. So Dukes would seem to be an asset in either role, but make no mistake, second baseman Willie Harris said, Dukes wants to start.

"I don't think he's willing to embrace" a reserve outfielder role, Harris said, "but I do believe he will do the best job he can in that role. Is he going to like it? I don't think so."

Dukes, a third-round pick in the 2002 draft, declined to comment through a team official. Because of his history of legal and personal problems -- a number of arrests, lawsuits and problems with clubs have characterized his six professional seasons in the Tampa Bay Rays and Nationals organizations -- the Nationals intercede with all interview requests. They also hired a former policeman, James Williams, to travel everywhere with the team and act as a mentor to Dukes.

Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein said he hopes to see a breakout summer ahead for Dukes after a mid- to late-spring that he spent "chasing pitches and being overaggressive." His work Wednesday, Eckstein said, suggested he might have finally turned a corner.

"Elijah is a very talented player," Eckstein said. "He showed that today. He has the ability to do things on a baseball field, especially with a bat in his hands."

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