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Dukes’ late-game heroics win it for Nats

- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 21, 2008

Say whatever you will about Elijah Dukes and everything that encompasses this 23-year-old's baseball career. Right now, Dukes is quite simply one of the Washington Nationals' most productive players.

And with another news-making performance last night in the Nationals' 4-3, 14-inning victory over the Texas Rangers, he once again drew attention for what he did on the field and not off of it.

With a game-tying homer in the eighth and then the game-winning single in the 14th, Dukes gave Washington a much-needed victory that took four hours and 10 minutes to be completed.

“I can't say anything bad about the guy,” pitcher Tim Redding said. “Everybody knows the baggage he had coming into this season, but he is by far, unquestionably, one of the best ballplayers we have in this clubhouse.”

An exhausting game that featured eight scoreless innings of one-hit ball from the Nationals bullpen finally ended in the 14th.

The game-winning rally began with Felipe Lopez taking a 3-2 pitch from reliever Jamey Wright off his foot. Then Wright never could find his control. He walked pinch hitter Paul Lo Duca before doing the same to Ryan Langerhans, loading the bases.

Cristian Guzman struck out, but Dukes responded by grounding the first pitch he saw from Wright through the drawn-in infield, scoring Lopez and setting off a mad celebration along the first-base line.

That was Dukes' fifth hit of the night, a new career best but only the latest big-time performance for the young outfielder. Over his last 24 games, he's hitting .344 (31-for-90). On top of that, he has drawn 15 walks, showing the kind of plate discipline the Nationals coaching staff has preached all season with little to show for it.

“He's been a constant guy for the last month,” manager Manny Acta said. “It's meant a lot because we need every hit we can get. For a guy like him to get hot, it means a lot to our club.”

Dukes' performance Friday night provided the latest evidence of his emergence as a ballplayer. He went 5-for-6, drew another walk, stole a pair of bases and delivered the clutch hits that both tied and won this game.

“He was a one-man show tonight,” Acta said.

All this from a man who opened the season with one hit in his first 28 at-bats.

“I knew I was a better hitter,” Dukes said. “It was just a matter of time for me to wake up and start hitting the ball.”

With Washington trailing 3-2 in the eighth and offering up little resistance to Texas starter Kevin Millwood, Dukes connected on a hanging breaking ball and lofted a high fly ball to left. David Murphy drifted back to the wall but could only watch as the ball landed in the visitors' bullpen, drawing a roar from the crowd of 30,359 and knotting the game 3-3.

It then turned into a battle of bullpens, with the Nationals' fivesome of Charlie Manning, Luis Ayala, Jon Rauch, Saul Rivera and Joel Hanrahan combining to churn out eight scoreless innings, allowing only one hit in the process.

Throw in the latter stages of Redding's outing and the Nationals at one point retired 21 straight batters from the best-hitting team in the majors.

“That's why we ended up winning the game,” Redding said. “The bullpen guys came in and just did a [whale] of a job.”

But Washington's own hitters couldn't push the winning run across themselves, despite several opportunities. Dukes doubled with two outs in the 10th but was stranded. Dmitri Young and Jesus Flores each singled to open the 11th but never advanced because Kory Casto couldn't get a bunt down and Lopez grounded into a double play.

The consistent Redding missed his opportunity to win Friday night, but the right-hander was happy just to have pitched. He arrived at the ballpark feeling queasy and didn't know for sure whether he would be able to make the start until he took some medication.

“On the drive in, something just hit me,” he said.

Redding wound up being done in by one poor inning: the second. With two outs and a man on second, Washington elected to intentionally walk No. 8 hitter Ramon Vazquez and go after the opposing pitcher.

It was a perfectly accepted strategy that would have been effective if not for one small matter: Redding wound up walking Millwood, loading the bases and turning the lineup over.

Then with the count 1-2 on Ian Kinsler, Redding left a fastball up and over the plate, and the Texas second baseman roped it to right-center for a bases-clearing double. It didn't help that Dukes missed both of his cutoff men, preventing any possibility of throwing out Millwood at the plate, but the greater mistake was Redding's inability to retire the opposing pitcher.

“It seems to be my M.O. this year, to see how many pitchers can get on base against me,” he said. “I just tried to be too fine in a situation I didn't need to be.”

That simple gaffe cost the Nationals because they managed just a pair of runs off Millwood through the seventh.

Then Dukes stepped up and reversed the course of this game while adding another positive chapter to his ever-changing life story.

“To battle back the way I did, I commend myself,” Dukes said. “Because I did what it takes to get better.”