- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2008

Though they made a flurry of roster changes yesterday afternoon, calling up three players from Class AAA Columbus, the Washington Nationals made it clear they weren’t going to make any changes to their starting lineup.

No matter if Lastings Milledge was hitting .241, if Wily Mo Pena was hitting .220 and if Elijah Dukes was hitting an almost unheard-of .067. If the Nationals were going to snap out of their offensive funk, those three young outfielders were going to have to be part of the solution.

“We know what we’re dealing with,” manager Manny Acta said. “When we got those guys, everything was based on potential. Potential means that you might do something. So they’re going to get their playing time.”

One game isn’t going to solve all those players’ hitting woes, and the three outfielders still combined to go 1-for-8 last night. But that one hit — Pena’s long-awaited first homer of the season — surely had to be an encouraging sign to emerge from the Nationals‘ 5-1 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers.

Pena’s solo shot to left in the second off Jeff Suppan set the tone for the evening. The game-deciding hits came in the sixth, with Ryan Zimmerman slugging an RBI double to right-center, Milledge driving in a run with a bases-loaded groundout and Jesus Flores continuing his hot streak with a two-run double to cap a four-run rally.

The Nationals racked up only three hits in the game, but that combined with some effective pitching from four relievers — newly added right-hander Brian Sanches (1-0) along with mainstays Saul Rivera, Luis Ayala and Jon Rauch — earned Washington a comfortable victory in front of 28,007 at Nationals Park.

“Well, we got three hits,” Acta said. “But they were quality ones.”

Pena’s early home run was a noteworthy event in its own right. No one who had watched every minute of every Nationals game this season had seen him park one into the stands. This is a guy who was supposed to have the potential to hit 40 homers, or at least 30, once given a chance to play every day for the first time in his career.

To date, though, Pena hadn’t even come close. He entered last night’s game (his 31st of the year) with three doubles, five RBI and a .253 slugging percentage that wouldn’t even qualify as a respectable batting average. His last home run? Sept. 12, 2007, 45 games and 144 at-bats ago.

“I think he was the biggest man on the planet without a hitting a homer so far,” Zimmerman said.

The Nationals, though, are sticking with the 270-pounder, and last night he finally rewarded them for their patience, launching a 3-1 fastball from Suppan into the left-field bleachers to put his team up 1-0.

“A lot of relief for him, because everybody associates him with home runs,” Acta said. “He’s so big and so strong, and the fact that he hadn’t hit one yet, he took a lot of weight off his shoulders.”

Pena’s homer held up through the fifth as Washington’s lone run and hit of the game, and when starter Odalis Perez (batting a cut on his left thumb) surrendered a two-out RBI single to opposing pitcher Suppan in the fifth — on an 0-2 pitch nonetheless — the Brewers had tied the game.

No problem, because the Nationals‘ bats finally came alive in the sixth, though they were aided by shortstop J.J. Hardy’s fielding error on Cristian Guzman’s bouncer up the middle. That prolonged the inning, and allowed Zimmerman to line a pitch from Suppan to the right-center gap and score Felipe Lopez with the go-ahead run.

Suppan (2-4) then grazed Dmitri Young’s elbow with a pitch, loading the bases for Milledge, who did his part by bouncing a chopper to first that brought Guzman home without a throw.

Story Continues →