Milledge Determined to Regain His Form in Minors

By Matt Gelb
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, May 4, 2009

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Corey Patterson took his place behind the batting cage, nodding in approval as Lastings Milledge took his cuts. An impending storm forced the players to the indoor cages before a recent rainout here at Alliance Bank Stadium, where playing baseball in April is typically a risky proposition. Five other members of the Syracuse Chiefs lingered, waiting their turn, knowing the extra work would not come in handy on this night.

But the veteran outfielder Patterson intently watched Milledge, the talented 24-year-old abruptly demoted to Class AAA by the Washington Nationals after one week and 24 at-bats. Milledge, the team's Opening Day center fielder and leadoff batter. Milledge, one of the young foundations on a franchise dying for any sort of progress.

Milledge wanted more time. "It was just one week," he said.

Now, nearly three weeks into his minor league assignment, Milledge proclaims his swing is back. He quickly ditched the patient approach Washington wanted from him. He is here, the unlikeliest of places as the second month of the baseball season commences, free-swinging with a sour taste in his mouth.

"I can see it through his actions that he has a plan now and it's coming out," said Patterson, a nine-year major league player. "Where before, like the first one or two days, I didn't see that."

The Nationals had justification for the demotion. Milledge hit .167 in his seven games at the top of the order. He struck out 10 times against one walk. Washington's leading home run and run producer in 2008 had mustered zero homers and one RBI. Also, he struggled in center field.

It still doesn't sit well with Milledge, who wears a blue T-shirt and red shorts emblazoned with Nationals logos. He says he has lost faith in the organization's coaching staff.

"From now on, I'm going to do what I feel like I have to do to be the best for the team, regardless of what other people say," Milledge said. "When it's all said and done, I know myself better than anyone else."

The transition to leadoff for an aggressive hitter such as Milledge was underestimated, he said. The Nationals wanted a different approach at the plate from a player who has struggled through his first two major league seasons to stay consistent.

That is why, for now, the experiment is on hold. Since joining the Chiefs on April 17, Milledge has yet to bat first. Instead, he has batted second 10 times and third four times. Through 14 games in Syracuse, Milledge is hitting .263, with a .333 slugging percentage, four doubles and three RBI. He still hasn't homered.

"I don't think he's a leadoff hitter," Syracuse Manager Tim Foli said.

Foli said Milledge's primary task while at Class AAA is to build a routine that will breed that consistency. For Milledge, that means returning to what he knows best.

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