- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2008

No major league club has struggled to produce any semblance of offense like the Washington Nationals have this season, and perhaps no one symbolizes the team’s failures at the plate like Elijah Dukes.

The extremely talented, extremely raw outfielder at times has looked completely lost with a bat in his hands - flailing away at breaking balls, taking fastballs for strikes and entering Thursday’s day-night doubleheader at Nationals Park with offensive numbers (a .148 average, no homers, two RBI) that wouldn’t be acceptable for a pitcher.

But manager Manny Acta has shown patience all along, with his club as a whole and with Dukes on an individual level, giving the 23-year-old continued opportunities to play and snap himself out of this funk.

Who could have foreseen it happening like this?

Dukes clubbed his first home run with the Nationals in most dramatic fashion, belting a pitch from St. Louis Cardinals closer Ryan Franklin over the center-field fence to win Thursday’s nightcap 10-9 in 10 innings.

“I’m very happy for the young man,” Acta said. “Because he’s had a hard time at the plate so far.”

Dukes’ blast capped a wild day and night of baseball on South Capitol Street, one that saw Washington again put forth a lifeless offensive performance in the afternoon 4-1 loss, then erupt for a season-high 16 hits in the nightcap only to blow a seven-run lead and be forced to mount a last-ditch rally in extra innings.

Trailing 9-8 after Cardinals rookie Joe Mather homered off reliever Brian Sanches in the 10th, the Nationals stormed back. Cristian Guzman led off with a single to center, his fourth hit of the night. Dukes then connected on Franklin’s 2-2 pitch, immediately looking toward the home dugout and pounding his chest before rounding the bases to a roar from the crowd of 32,357.

“I went up, and I was tired. I was sweating all day,” said Dukes, who wound up 4-for-6 with the homer, a triple and four RBI. “But I was like, ‘All right, I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to step it up.’ … To hit that home run, it felt extra special.”

A game the Nationals at one point led by seven runs turned into a thriller in the ninth when closer Jon Rauch (who had yet to surrender an earned run in a save situation this season) couldn’t protect a two-run lead. Despite striking out Albert Pujols looking at a wicked slider, Rauch served up an RBI triple to Skip Schumaker and then an infield single to Aaron Miles that tied the game 8-8.

“Obviously, going out there and blowing another save isn’t what I had in mind,” Rauch said. “We go out and put up an 8-spot early. … I just came in and made mistakes, and it almost cost us.”

Few could have seen the game ending the way it did, not when the Nationals took a 7-0 lead after three innings.

All those runs proved necessary, too, because Nationals starter Tim Redding allowed the Cardinals to claw their way back by committing one of baseball’s biggest sins - allowing RBI hits by the opposing pitcher - not once but twice.

Mike Parisi laced a two-run double in the fourth for his first career hit. Two innings later, reliever Mark Worrell (stepping to the plate for the first time in his big league career) belted a 3-2 fastball from the right-hander into the left-field bleachers for a three-run homer that cut the lead to 8-6 and ended Redding’s night.

“I let two different pitchers drive in five runs, and a guy that had never swung a bat in the big leagues hit a three-run homer off me,” Redding said. “Other than those two outcomes, I felt good.”

Washington never led in the opener despite getting a solid start from John Lannan (two runs over six innings). But even that wasn’t good enough to overcome the Nationals’ usually tepid offense, which puts immense pressure on the pitching staff to avoid mistakes.

When Lannan served up a two-run homer to Troy Glaus in the fourth inning - on a low-and-inside fastball the left-hander wished he had back - the impact was significant.

Lannan (4-6) did little else wrong during his 97-pitch outing, aside from issuing four walks without striking out a batter. The 23-year-old, though, was beating himself up afterward despite earning a “quality start” with his performance.

“That’s not a start I’m really happy with,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter if we’re scoring runs or not. I’m trying to go out there and trying to go seven or eight [innings]. Especially with the doubleheader, I wanted to go deeper. So that start wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.”

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