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Dukes takes spotlight in loss for Nats

- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 11, 2008

NEW YORK | Say this much for Elijah Dukes — in a game that featured 23 runs, 24 hits, 11 pitchers and countless twists and turns packed into three hours and 24 minutes, he stole the show.

The Washington Nationals' 13-10 loss to the New York Mets on Wednesday night, their final one at Shea Stadium and 90th of the season, was all about Dukes. From the time he put the Nationals on the scoreboard with his 11th homer of the season to his last exchange with the irate Mets fans down the third-base line, he was the center of attention.

Not much of it was with good reason, however. A game that nearly was won by an offensive surge from Washington and then was dropped by its bullpen was instead marked by Dukes' spat with Mets starter Mike Pelfrey.

He scored the Nationals' first run in the second inning, tying the game on a 410-foot solo homer off Pelfrey. The drive didn't appear to mean much after New York's six-run third.

That quickly changed.

With the Mets up 7-1 in the fourth inning and Dukes batting for the first time since his homer, he took exception to Pelfrey's first pitch, which nearly grazed his jersey in the fourth inning, and had to be restrained by manager Manny Acta and first baseman Dmitri Young as he yelled at Pelfrey and went nose-to-nose with catcher Brian Schneider.

“[Dukes] told me to bring it on and [said], 'Let's go,' and I was thinking, 'Hey man, I didn't do that on purpose,'” Pelfrey said. “I was kind of shocked it escalated like that. I just said, 'Hey, why would I hit you?' That's what I kept on saying to him. He obviously wasn't very happy.”

After Acta talked with home plate umpire Doug Eddings for several minutes, all while trying to calm Dukes down, Eddings warned the Mets' bench.

The right fielder swung and missed at one slider and took another for a strike as the announced Shea Stadium of 52,431 howled, then punched a 1-2 pitch inside the third-base line for a double.

He scored on Wil Nieves' single to left and crossed home plate to more booing, which only intensified after Dukes gestured to the fans behind the Nationals' dugout.

It was the most glaring exception to what has been an otherwise mostly smooth year for the troubled outfielder. And on this night, it overshadowed another instance of Dukes maturing into the Nationals' most potent threat.

“He had a very good game,” Acta said. “I think everybody knows that he has worked very hard this year, and the Nationals have worked very hard with him to work on his temper. He has been great the whole season. It's unfortunate what happened tonight, but he's human.”

Acta didn't anticipate any disciplinary action but said he would “think things through” before deciding.

On his next at-bat in the fifth inning, Dukes worked Pelfrey to a 3-2 count, jeered lustily all the way and was hit in the chest by a fastball. Though he scowled all the way down the first-base line, Dukes didn't provoke any more incidents - until he rounded the bases.

He got to third on Kory Casto's single and trotted toward home as Nieves grounded out to end the inning. Then, as he walked into the Nationals' dugout, Dukes looked up at the fans, stuck out his tongue and wagged it several times.

Through a team spokesman, Dukes declined several requests to comment, saying only, “What the [expletive] is there to talk about?”

That left his teammates to explain his actions.

Ryan Zimmerman said Dukes is an emotional player but added, “I don't know if there's really a place for that in this kind of game.”

Lastings Milledge defended Dukes' actions, saying he would have been just as upset if a pitcher threw inside after he hit a homer.

“Don't make him out to be a bad guy,” Milledge said. “The guy loves the game. The guy plays the game hard. I don't think he did anything wrong.”

While the Pelfrey-Dukes squabble played out, the Nationals turned a six-run Mets lead into a two-run game. And in the sixth, they tied it up on Cristian Guzman's two-run homer.

But Saul Rivera gave up four runs in the seventh, though one was unearned after Guzman muffed Rivera's pickoff attempt at second.

Guzman's second homer of the game, a three-run blast, brought Washington back within one, but David Wright hit a two-run blast in the eighth for the Mets.

It was also a shot that rendered Dukes' final at-bat of the night, against former teammate Luis Ayala, moot. He grounded out to second for the first out of the ninth, trotting back to the dugout to one more serenade from the Shea faithful.

Not that he was done taking the spotlight. A few steps from the dugout, he looked up, motioned for the fans to bring it on and blew them a kiss as he hopped down the steps.

“You've got to stand for what you know out there. You can't let them rag you out and get you uncomfortable,” Milledge said. “He made a statement tonight, and that's that.”