- The Washington Times - Friday, April 25, 2008

Felipe Lopez knows what it’s like to have to re-earn a manager’s trust.

The Washington Nationals infielder only recently won back his starting job after convincing Manny Acta he could replace struggling Ronnie Belliard at second base.

Lopez has rewarded his manager’s faith with his play over the last week, never more so than during last night’s 10-5 victory over the New York Mets. On the same night Acta perhaps lost a bit of trust in Lastings Milledge — benching his young center fielder for showing up late to the ballpark — Lopez proved it’s possible to earn it back.

The 27-year-old’s sixth-inning grand slam off Mets reliever Aaron Heilman capped a stirring rally by the home team, which came back from a 3-0 deficit.

The first grand slam in ballpark history was only the pinnacle of an offensive resurgence, as Washington (7-16) won for only the fourth time in its last 20 games.

“Hey, we’ve won two of the last three,” a smiling Acta said.

The manager’s mood was less giddy earlier in the afternoon, when he made the decision to bench Milledge. Despite his typical mild manner, Acta has benched players for a lack of hustle on a few select occasions. In fact, it happened to Lopez last June when he failed to run out a routine groundball.

Last night, Acta made another statement, declaring he won’t tolerate tardiness, either.

When Washington’s starting lineup was originally posted in the clubhouse in mid-afternoon, Milledge was listed as the center fielder and No. 6 hitter. But when the 23-year-old walked into the clubhouse in street clothes at 4 p.m. — his teammates already on the field stretching per the schedule posted on clubhouse marker boards — Acta pulled him in favor of utilityman Willie Harris.

“I love Milledge, and he knows it,” the manager said. “Out of all the rules that I have, I have three rules that are unbreakable, regardless of who you are. You can be the 25th guy on the team or Ryan Zimmerman. … Go ask Jim Bowden and Stan Kasten and the Lerners: What would they do to me if I showed up late to work?”

This wasn’t the first time Milledge arrived late — or perilously close to late — during this young season, a fact that hasn’t been lost on some teammates.

Milledge wouldn’t reveal why he was late but admitted he learned a lesson.

“It was something I couldn’t control,” he said. “I take full responsibility. So that’s it.”

The evening did not get off to much of a positive start, with right-hander Shawn Hill laboring through his five innings of work. In his second start since returning from a forearm injury, the right-hander walked three batters, allowed opposing starter Oliver Perez to drive an RBI single up the middle in the fourth and departed after the fifth, having allowed three runs (two earned) while throwing a whopping 98 pitches.

“I was just throwing way too many pitches in situations where it wasn’t needed,” Hill said. “And it caused me to only be able to go five innings, which I hate.”

The Nationals picked their starter up, scoring three times in the fifth to tie the game and then storming back to take the lead in the sixth.

Milledge played a role in the rally, coming up to pinch-hit against Heilman and drawing a two-out walk to load the bases and bring Lopez to the plate.

“My mind was in the game the whole game,” he said. “I knew I’d be called upon, so I came up there and had a big A.B.”

Lopez’s plate appearance was even bigger. He battled through a tough at-bat against the reliever before driving a change-up down the middle into the right-field bleachers above the out-of-town scoreboard.

Thus completed Lopez’s rollercoaster ride back to the top. After struggling throughout 2007 while battling unspecified off-the-field issues, he lost his starting job to Belliard this spring but has seized his second opportunity, with 10 hits in his last seven games.

“At the end of the day, you’ve got to believe in yourself,” Lopez said. “You can have the whole world believe in you. If you don’t believe in yourself, it doesn’t matter. I believe in my abilities and I’m very positive. My work habits have been great and they’re going to continue to be.”

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