- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 26, 2008

LOS ANGELES | He was acquired in a trade last December that came to epitomize the Washington Nationals‘ attempts to build with talented, young players.

And at times, Lastings Milledge hasn’t disappointed. The 23-year-old outfielder has flashed glimpses of his pure ability. But those moments have come sparingly over the last four months, interspersed between periods of slumps, inconsistencies and injuries.

Which is why Milledge considers the next 60 games vital to his long-term standing within the organization that touts him as a centerpiece for years to come.

“It’s real important,” Milledge said Friday as he prepared to return from a monthlong stint on the disabled list. “I haven’t been playing as well as I’ve been wanting to, or as well as everybody kind of wrote me down to be. But it’s a learning process. I learned a lot this year. And there’s still enough time to turn it around into the season that I really wanted it to be.”

Milledge’s numbers when he strained his groin chasing down a fly ball June 28 at Nationals Park were pedestrian. After 302 at-bats, he had a .245 average, seven homers and 32 RBI.

On a club that ranks last in the majors in most offensive categories, Milledge was hardly the only one struggling to produce at the plate. But team officials had loftier expectations for the man they acquired from the New York Mets for Brian Schneider and Ryan Church, something more to the tune of a .270 average, double-digit homers and 75 RBI.

It will take a serious late-season surge for Milledge to reach those levels, but numbers seem less important to the Nationals now than having their center fielder back in the lineup.

“We need him to have every at-bat, every inning at the big league level,” manager Manny Acta said. “This was a very important year for him when it comes to his development, and I’m glad to have him off the DL so he can continue to pile up experience.”

Milledge had played in 115 major league games before coming to Washington, this after three full seasons in the minors, so he remains in many ways a raw talent. That inexperience shows up at times, whether in his approach at the plate or in the occasional fundamental gaffe in the field or on the bases.

The Nationals expected that, as did Milledge. The key, he felt, was making sure he didn’t endure any prolonged slumps and continued to progress along the way.

In that regard, he has succeeded. Milledge has yet to go more than three straight games without a hit. And after some shaky moments in center field early this season, he has made strides, so much so that team officials are convinced he can thrive there in the future.

“He’s made a lot of progress, starting from Day 1 in spring training,” Acta said. “I think most of the questions of whether he was able to play center field or not disappeared at the end of his stay here before he went to the DL. He made that much progress.”

Milledge is less content with his development, believing he still has a ways to go. But he’s hardly lacking in determination.

For years he has heard scouts, team executives and reporters tout him as a future star. He admits he’s not there yet, but he also insists he can still reach those heights.

“I’m very committed to being the player everybody wants me to be,” he said. “I feel like I will get there. … When it’s all said and done and I become a veteran, I think everybody will be happy.”

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