- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2008

PITTSBURGH | It was possibly the most emotional win the Washington Nationals had experienced in some time, a dramatic, back-and-forth, 7-6 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates on Tuesday night that was sorely needed by a ballclub on the brink of collapse.

But could it actually have been too emotional?

The story of this Nationals victory should have been entirely about the power display put on by the majors’ least-productive offensive club: five home runs in a span of five innings, including the game-winner by Lastings Milledge with two outs in the ninth. With that blast off Pirates closer Matt Capps at PNC Park, Washington earned its second win in 10 games.

“We had some big-time performances today,” Milledge said. “We just had some guys step up today. It seemed like everybody wanted to be that leader, that guy that everybody kind of jumps on and rides.”

But the aftermath of Milledge’s homer, which featured manager Manny Acta chastising outfielder Elijah Dukes (who had begun the rally with a double off the right-center wall) for displaying too much emotion, put at least a slight damper on the evening’s proceedings.

As Dukes and Milledge crossed the plate, Dukes looked back at Capps (who blew his first save in 16 tries this season) in a move that could have been perceived as taunting the opposing pitcher.

When Dukes returned to the dugout, Acta had words for him. Dukes yelled back at his manager, prompting Acta to yell back himself and players to get between the two.

Dukes later took his position in right field for the bottom of the ninth with a menacing glare in his eyes, forcing Milledge at one point to come over and try to calm him down.

As the Nationals gathered in the middle of the diamond to congratulate each other at the conclusion of the game, Dukes did not offer his hand to Acta, who only smirked.

Dukes was not made available in the Nationals’ clubhouse after the game. Several players bristled when asked about the incident.

“It was just a little misunderstanding in the dugout that I’m not going to elaborate on,” Acta said. “We talked, and everything is fine.”

The Acta-Dukes situation couldn’t overshadow an otherwise remarkable ballgame for Washington, which entered with the majors’ lowest slugging percentage (.348) yet slammed five home runs off the Pirates’ pitching staff.

Second baseman Ronnie Belliard, in his first game back from the disabled list, clubbed two solo shots himself off Pittsburgh starter Paul Maholm, the highlights of a 3-for-4, three RBI night.

Dmitri Young and Jesus Flores also homered off Maholm during a seventh inning rally that saw the Nationals come back to tie the game 4-4.

“That was good to see,” Acta said. “We’ve been lacking the power pretty much the whole season. To see them come in bunches today, that’s a good sign.”

Belliard’s RBI single off reliever Franquelis Osoria in the eighth put Washington ahead 5-4, but the Nationals’ bullpen squandered that rare late lead by letting the Pirates rally for two runs in the bottom of the inning. Ryan Doumit doubled to cap a 4-for-4, two-homer effort. Xavier Nady singled him home to knock setup man Luis Ayala from the game. Pinch-hitter Doug Mientkiewicz then lofted a sacrifice fly off Joel Hanrahan to push the go-ahead run across and force the Nationals to mount one last rally against Capps, the Pirates closer who had been perfect so far this season.

Capps retired the first two batters with ease, leaving the game in Dukes’ hands. The outfielder delivered, launching a double off the wall in right-center and giving his team new hope.

Milledge, aware that Capps likes to go right after hitters, turned the tables on the right-hander. He crushed the first pitch he saw deep to left-center, the fifth and final big blow in a big win for the Nationals.

“For the young guys, it’s an opportunity to shine,” Young said of Milledge and Dukes. “You’re going to have failures, and with failures you’re going to have success.”

SEEN AND HEARD AT PNC PARK

PITTSBURGH - This is quite possibly the best ballpark in America (at least it is in this writer’s eyes).

But it does have a few unfortunate quirks, such as the field’s southeast orientation. There aren’t many ballparks out there that point this direction, and it led to a problem for the Nationals in the first inning when center fielder Lastings Milledge couldn’t see Nate McLouth’s leadoff line drive to his left.

Milledge probably wouldn’t have caught the ball on the fly, but because he had to stop and shield his eyes from the sun, he was late to get to it, and that allowed McLouth to stretch a single into a double (and eventually score).

- Mark Zuckerman

OVERHEARD

“I’m just going to go out there and hit the ball somewhere.”

- Ronnie Belliard, who returned to the Nationals’ lineup Tuesday after three weeks on the disabled list with a strained calf

TONIGHT’S GAME

Nationals LHP John Lannan Record, ERA: 4-6, 3.47

Pirates RHP Ian Snell Record, ERA: 2-6, 5.65

Time: 7:05 p.m. TV: MASN2

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