- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 23, 2008

VIERA, Fla. — One by one, the balls cracked off the bats of Wily Mo Pena, Elijah Dukes and Lastings Milledge and soared toward the outfield fence at the Washington Nationals’ spring training complex.

A drive to the right-center gap by Milledge. A home run to left-center by Pena. A deeper drive by Dukes that nearly landed on the roof of the batting cages well behind the left-field fence. Then a towering blast by Pena that indeed struck the tin roof of those cages.

Standing behind the plate, Jim Bowden couldn’t contain his glee.

“Oh, mercy!” the general manager exclaimed after Pena’s deepest drive.

Nobody wanted to read too much into one awesome power display during batting practice, but it was hard not to think about the prospects of Washington’s lineup in 2008.

“The lineup’s going to be better,” Pena said. “Much, much better.”

Pena, Dukes and Milledge may play a big hand in making that happen. None of those athletic outfielders wore a Nationals uniform this time last spring.

Washington acquired all three in trades — Dukes and Milledge coming over this winter, Pena arriving last August — and they make for an imposing sight at the plate with a bat in hand.

Pena and Dukes are pure power hitters capable of smacking 40 home runs a season. Milledge projects to hit 20 to 25 a year, though it was easy to overlook him yesterday alongside Pena and Dukes.

“I felt sorry for Lastings,” teammate Dmitri Young said. “He was tagging the ball, too, but his balls were just scraping the wall. The other two were hitting cars.”

The three newcomers give Washington a new-look offense as it prepares to move into its new ballpark. A ballpark that, by all projections, will be a hitter’s paradise compared with cavernous RFK Stadium.

“I’m not even trying to compare the power numbers,” Young said. “Because we were playing at a state park last year.”

Standing at the next locker over, Felipe Lopez chimed in.

“Yellowstone,” the infielder said.

The Nationals’ move from East Capitol Street to South Capitol Street should result in a more-potent offensive attack. Nationals Park has reasonable distances to the gaps (370 feet to right-center, 377 feet to left-center) that will play fair to both pitchers and batters.

“Now that you have a field that’s more in style, instead of [an] outdated, obsolete, historical landmark, we can have a better approach to hitting,” Young said.

Of course, it helps to have more talented hitters in a lineup that struggled last season to produce … until Pena showed up in mid-August.

In his first 156 at-bats, before the Nationals acquired Pena from the Boston Red Sox, he hit .218 with five home runs and 18 runs in 156 at-bats. With Washington, Pena hit .293 with eight homers and 24 runs in 133 at-bats.

“Was it a coincidence? We’ll see,” manager Manny Acta said. “But we did add almost a run per game since Wily came over here. So having Wily the full season and adding Milledge — which is a totally different player from all the guys we tried in center field last year — is obviously going to improve our offense.”

And that doesn’t take into account Dukes, who enters camp as the team’s fourth outfielder but could force his way into the lineup if he can transpose yesterday’s BP session into actual game situations.

The 23-year-old slugger said the performance of his two BP teammates yesterday only motivated him.

“They’re hitting that ball hard, and it’s like I can’t be looking like the wimp of the group,” he said. “You’ve got to come with your ‘A’ game. So we feed off each other. That’s how it’s going to be all year.”

The Nationals hope that trend continues all season.

“Baseball’s fun when you score more runs than the other team,” Bowden said. “So it’s nice to have more hitters, ‘cause you score more runs when you have more hitters.”

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