- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 2, 2009

MIAMI | For official purposes, the Washington Nationals’ decision to demote Elijah Dukes to Class AAA Syracuse on Wednesday was a baseball move.

Dukes, unlike veterans Austin Kearns and Ronnie Belliard, has options and thus could be sent down without risk of another club claiming him. And as Nationals manager Manny Acta and acting general manager Mike Rizzo pointed out, the 25-year-old Dukes will get the kind of consistent playing time in Syracuse that wasn’t available with Washington.

There were, however, other factors at play: Dukes’ continued struggles with maturity and attitude. The volatile outfielder reported late to Land Shark Stadium on Wednesday morning, according to club sources, leaving Acta and Rizzo to wait to summon him to the office to reveal his fate while also doling out a fine.

Dukes’ demotion wasn’t a result of his tardiness - the team had already made the decision - but it didn’t do anything to help his image within an organization that has been emphasizing character and work ethic in recent weeks.

Needing to clear a roster spot to make room for newly acquired outfielder Nyjer Morgan and reliever Sean Burnett, the Nationals chose to send the slumping Dukes to the minors. Since returning from a hamstring injury June 2, he was batting only .198 with two homers, six RBI and a .253 on-base percentage.

“He’s not a finished product,” Acta said. “Obviously, he was in a little bit of a slump the last month here. He needs to get down there and get his swing back. … I don’t think we were going to be doing him any help by just sitting him here.”

With Adam Dunn entrenched in left field, Josh Willingham establishing himself as the regular right fielder and Morgan taking over in center field, Dukes’ playing time figured to be minimal at best.

Dukes didn’t say much during his brief meeting with Acta and Rizzo, and he refused to talk to reporters before packing his bags and leaving the ballpark. Team officials hope he will take the right mindset with him and use this demotion as motivation.

“I think he gets it,” Rizzo said. “I think he understands that this is for his developmental process. He knows he’s been struggling lately, and I think he can use this time to right himself down there.”

Though they avoided an unceremonious removal from Washington’s roster, Kearns and Belliard may not remain for long. Club sources said Rizzo has been trying to trade both veterans, but given their struggles there have been no takers.

Barring a sudden interest from another team or a sudden upswing in either player’s performance, both Kearns and Belliard could be released by the end of the month.

Zimmerman’s E streak

Ryan Zimmerman threw another ball away in the first inning Wednesday, his third error in two games. (He actually was initially charged with three errors Tuesday night but had one taken away upon review by the Elias Sports Bureau.)

Zimmerman, who aspires to win a Gold Glove Award, has committed 13 errors this season, tied with Florida’s Emilio Bonifacio and Atlanta’s Chipper Jones for the most among big league third basemen.

“It’s frustrating, obviously,” he said. “Nobody wants to make errors, and I’m trying hard not to. But you realize you go through things like that once a season, probably. It’s my goal not to let it happen. But unfortunately it did. Now you have to forget about it and move on.”

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