Nationals Insider: As always, Dukes a big if

As much as the Washington Nationals have talked about the need to add a legitimate power hitter in 2009, perhaps they’re now realizing said slugger might already be on the roster.

His name is Elijah Dukes, and since returning from a calf injury two weeks ago he’s showing just how much he can inject life into a woeful lineup.

In his first 10 games back, the 23-year-old outfielder hit .351 with four homers, 10 RBI, six walks, three stolen bases and 10 runs.

As manager Manny Acta put it succinctly: “He’s a force.”

But as always with Dukes, every laudatory remark much be couched with the single qualifier that always applies to this talented but combustible figure.

If.

Elijah Dukes can be a dynamic player for the Nationals on the field … if he keeps his life together off the field.

Dukes’ history of legal and personal trouble will continue to haunt him until he establishes a pattern of good behavior over a considerable length of time.

By all accounts, he has taken a positive first step in that direction this season. There have been no known incidents away from the field, and his one major in-game incident - the dugout blowup with Acta in Pittsburgh - washed over within a couple of days.

Dukes’ bigger hindrance has been his inability to stay healthy and on the field. He has made three trips to the disabled list for three different injuries - a strained hamstring, a small tear in his knee and a strained calf - and that more than anything has sidetracked his season.

When he has been healthy, Dukes simply has been Washington’s most dynamic player. He exhibits a rare combination of raw power and a controlled swing that most major leaguers would envy. He is aggressive on the bases and is capable of stealing 30 bases a season. He’s obviously gifted in the outfield, both in his ability to track down balls and fire off throws to third base or the plate.

More than anything, Dukes plays hard. There is no questioning his desire to win. He expresses it constantly, whether in displaying emotion after driving in a game-winning run or getting down on himself for committing a costly error.

There is a fine line, however, to playing with emotion. It helps up to a certain level, but too much emotion often leads to disaster, and that’s where Dukes has to be careful. He can’t let his emotions get the best of him, whether it involves a teammate, a coach, an opponent or an umpire.

In many ways, Dukes is not unlike Milton Bradley and Jose Guillen, a couple of supremely talented and passionate ballplayers who have put together decent careers but have been unable to realize their full potential because they can’t always harness their emotions. There are times when Bradley and Guillen are the best players on the field. And then there are times when they are a hindrance to their teams, as the Nationals learned with Guillen in 2005 and 2006.

There’s a reason those two have played for so many different organizations. They always wear out their welcomes.

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