- The Washington Times - Monday, May 26, 2008

The talk about Elijah Dukes usually is about his explosiveness — raw power cased in a 6-foot-1, 240-pound frame. When the Washington Nationals outfielder stands at home plate, hands gripping a black maple bat, there’s rarely much middle ground. Something, good or bad, is going to happen.

This season, it has been mostly bad. Baited by curveballs that dive under his aggressive swing, Dukes has watched his numbers and his place in the batting order languish as he grasps for what’s preventing him from cashing in on his seemingly limitless potential.

Dukes didn’t find any immediate answers yesterday. But in providing the winning run in the Nationals’ 7-6 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers, he showed even more reasons why he can be so dangerous.

It was Dukes‘ patience, smarts and speed — in that order — that put him in position to score on Guillermo Mota’s ninth-inning wild pitch. Those aren’t the gifts most people talk about with the 23-year-old, but they helped the Nationals recover from a blown 6-0 lead and win the third of a four-game series against the Brewers.

“It always feels good to hit that winning home run,” Dukes said. “But to get that good walk and have somebody drive you in … it feels even better. It kind of pumps the team up to say we don’t all have to hit the long ball. We can just out-hustle people and win, too.”

After starting his at-bat with a swinging strike, Dukes kept the bat on his shoulder for five pitches, four of them balls, to draw a one-out walk.

When Dmitri Young pulled a ground ball in front of drawn-out right fielder Corey Hart, Dukes saw he would have enough time to race around second and put himself 90 feet from scoring the game-winner.

“We like to go first to third. We emphasize scoring from second on a single, secondary leads and stuff like that,” manager Manny Acta said. “We believe in that kind of stuff, and he’s a perfect guy to do all that.”

On the next pitch, he took a generous lead off third as the Brewers‘ infield prepared for Felipe Lopez’s bunt. He had noticed Mota had been gripping his fastball too tight and stood a chance of throwing one in the dirt. When Mota bounced a splitter in front of the plate, Dukes sprinted home and into a chest bump from Lastings Milledge.

It saved what looked like a sure win for the Nationals through the first five innings.

Two of the Nationals’ other struggling outfielders — Milledge and Wily Mo Pena — ripped a pair of doubles to drive in three runs in the fourth, and Aaron Boone hit his fourth homer of the year in the fifth.

Starter Tim Redding had a 6-0 lead heading into the sixth — the one inning that has been a hole in his resume all year.

Opponents are hitting .371 and slugging .857 off him in the sixth, numbers that escalated yesterday when he gave up five runs.

“The first five innings [were] productive. The sixth inning, absolutely horrible,” Redding said. “There’s no excuse to put us in a situation where we have a 6-0 lead, and we’ve got to fight back in the bottom of the ninth to win the game.”

Redding gave up a two-run homer to Hart but had a chance to escape the inning with just those runs when he allowed a pinch-hit single to Joe Dillon. Then he hit Rickie Weeks with a pitch, leaving runners on first and second who scored when Mike Cameron doubled off Saul Rivera.

“That’s what makes this game so difficult,” Redding said of going through a lineup several times. “Breaking ball’s not as sharp, not throwing down in the zone. Now they see it up, they know it’s going to stay up, and they put the bat on the ball. I’m just glad we won, glad the guys battled back.”

That came mostly through Dukes, who nonetheless didn’t help himself at the plate. He went 0-for-2, dropping his average to .105.

But he showed there’s more to his game than a power stroke.

“He does have a good approach at the plate,” Acta said. “He knows the strike zone, and he takes pitches out of it and all that despite where he’s hitting in the lineup. It’s just a matter of things starting to happen for him.”

SEEN AND HEARD AT NATIONALS PARK

Apparently running a baseball team isn’t Washington Nationals manager Manny Acta’s only claim to fame. The team’s well-traveled (and bilingual) skipper can sing the national anthems of five municipalities: the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. That’s what a few years in the Montreal Expos’ system will do for you. But Acta’s musical education with the franchise only extended to its nomadic last few seasons; he never learned the French version of “O, Canada.”

Ben Goessling

BY THE NUMBERS

721 Days since neither Ryan Zimmerman nor Austin Kearns was in the Nationals’ starting lineup, which likely will happen today with Zimmerman scheduled to take a day off and Kearns on the disabled list. The last time was June 5, 2006, when the team hadn’t traded for Kearns yet and Brendan Harris started at third in a 5-4 win over the Atlanta Braves.

TODAY’S GAME

Nationals RHP Jason Bergmann Record, ERA: 1-1, 5.47

Brewers RHP Ben Sheets Record, ERA: 5-1, 2.92

Time: 1:35 p.m. TV: MASN2

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