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Curveballs throw Dukes off balance

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Most of this season, so far, has been an education for Elijah Dukes. The majority of the lessons have been harsh ones.

The Washington Nationals outfielder is learning how to hit a breaking ball. He's learning how to control his temper. He's learning how pitchers are baiting him to chase a pitch out of the strike zone. The problem is, Dukes' lessons are being absorbed through a prolonged slump that's playing out as he assumes the team's starting job in right field for the next month.

Dukes got two hits in last night's loss to the Brewers, but that only raised his average to .111 in 14 contests with the Nationals this season. Fourteen of his 32 outs have come on strikeouts, and Dukes has drawn just five walks, bringing his on-base percentage to .214.

"It's kind of mind-boggling to me, not to be hitting," Dukes said. "I'm taking it quite well, better than I normally would. I probably broke about four helmets, five helmets two years ago. Obviously, I've learned that part of the game is failure."

He has started five of the Nationals' last seven games, and likely will get the majority of the playing time while Austin Kearns recovers from elbow surgery.

Dukes said about 90 percent of the pitches he's seeing are breaking balls and knows he needs to handle them better if he's going to stay in the lineup.

"I get a little impatient with a 3-2 count," Dukes said. "I swing at that ball that probably wasn't as good as the first ball he threw to me. Just developing that patience and knowing my strike zone is what I really need to work on."

Zimmerman fine

Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said his left shoulder is fine, refuting questions that he sustained nerve damage in his shoulder last Sunday.

Zimmerman injured his shoulder sliding into second after a double in Baltimore and has had it wrapped up occasionally this week. But he's not fighting anything more than soreness, he said.

"They checked it out and said nothing's wrong with it," Zimmerman said. "If it was hurt too much, I wouldn't play, because I don"t want to do that to the team."

Team signs Reese

Infielder Pokey Reese, last seen in the Florida Marlins' camp in 2006, signed a non-guaranteed minor league deal with the Nationals on Saturday.

Reese, 35, will head to Class AAA Columbus, giving the team some depth with outfielder Ryan Langerhans called up to the majors, infielder Pete Orr on the disabled list and Bret Boone retiring.

His last major league action was with the Boston Red Sox in 2004. He spent the 2005 season on the disabled list with the Seattle Mariners and signed with the Marlins that December, but the team terminated his contract in spring training after he left for three days to deal with personal issues without notifying them.

The two-time Gold Glove winner played his first five major league seasons with the Cincinnati Reds while Nationals general manager Jim Bowden held the same job there.

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