With Lastings Milledge in Minors, Washington Nationals Shuffle Outfield

With Lastings Milledge, left, sent to the minors, Manager Manny Acta, right, will find more time for Josh Willingham and Elijah Dukes, who will be the regular center fielder.
With Lastings Milledge, left, sent to the minors, Manager Manny Acta, right, will find more time for Josh Willingham and Elijah Dukes, who will be the regular center fielder. (By Dominic Bracco Ii -- The Washington Post)
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By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 16, 2009

Lastings Milledge was neither a significant enough player nor a long-enough tenured member of the Washington Nationals to be spoken of in terms of an era. Perhaps the Lastings Milledge Error would fit, but not Era. In his absence, though, several aspects of the team have taken on different looks, in significant enough ways to underscore how central Milledge was to the Nationals' 2009 plans, and how quickly the team abandoned them.

The first game since the Nationals abruptly demoted their starting center fielder and leadoff hitter to Class AAA Syracuse was to have been last night against the Philadelphia Phillies, but the game was rained out. No makeup date was announced. The Nationals remain winless at 0-7 entering tonight's series finale against the Phillies.

Last night's game was called off at around 4:15 p.m., early enough to avoid a conflict with the playoff opener of the NHL's Washington Capitals across town, but late enough for Nationals Manager Manny Acta to have offered a glimpse of what his post-Milledge lineup will look like.

There were no surprises. It had an outfield, from left to right, of Adam Dunn, Elijah Dukes and Austin Kearns. It had second baseman Anderson Hernández batting leadoff -- although shortstop Cristian Guzmán, who is day-to-day with a strained hamstring, will hit there when he returns.

Acta, in his first public comments since the Milledge decision was made Tuesday, backed the company line, though perhaps with the slightest tinge of regret.

"You can take it any way you want -- whether [it was] a message or not," he said. "I think we're just trying to help the team put the best guys out there right now. It really does help that we do have the depth now, and options. And we're not doing very well. So I guess we did what we had to do."

Acta said he attempted to call Milledge after the decision was made, but got his voicemail.

"Lastings is going through what a lot of players go through, where they go down at times like this," he said. "We're still . . . I'm still a big fan of Lastings. I think Lastings is going be a good player. I told him on the message that I was pulling for him, and I'm anticipating him being up here again and making a contribution."

There is little doubt the move was good news for three players: Dukes, who will now play every day in center field; Kearns, who won't have to share time in right field with Dukes; and Josh Willingham, who went from being a starting left fielder with the Florida Marlins last year to a fifth outfielder with the Nationals.

"My goodness, I'm dying to have [Willingham] in my lineup every day," Acta said. "This guy is a professional hitter. This is not what we had in mind when we signed him. Obviously, he's a everyday player."

The Nationals are one more move away from allowing Willingham to be an everyday player again, but the Milledge demotion at least gave Acta some breathing room in what had become an untenable situation, with two too many outfielders deserving playing time. The front office's inability, or unwillingness, to trade from its excess -- more than Milledge's shortcomings in center field, which the Nationals fully knew about -- is what ultimately led to the demotion.

"It makes it easier now with the rest of the guys," Acta conceded.

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