- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2008

VIERA, Fla. — Elijah Dukes slid hard into second base, felt something in his right leg and for a moment worried he might have suffered a serious injury.

“It’s always scary to get that feeling of, ‘Oh, I might be hurt,’ ” he said.

But before the Washington Nationals dugout had time to wince and before manager Manny Acta could process all the possible worst-case scenarios, Dukes walked off the field under his own power.

“I knew if I could get up that quick, it couldn’t be that big of a deal,” he said later.

The Nationals are grateful it’s not, because for a brief moment yesterday afternoon, the team faced the prospect of opening the season without either its starting left fielder or his top backup.

Instead, Nationals officials can take some solace knowing Dukes will be ready for Opening Night and will play at least the first two weeks of the season while starter Wily Mo Pena recovers from a strained left oblique muscle.

Pena’s diagnosis came down yesterday, two days after the 26-year-old slugger hurt himself taking batting practice. What was at first considered a minor injury turned out to be a Grade 2 strain that according to the team resulted in a “significant tear of the muscle.”

Pena is expected to miss at least four weeks and thus will begin the season on the 15-day disabled list.

“It’s frustrating for me because I was thinking that on Opening Day my name was going to be there,” Pena said. “Now I just have to let it go and see what happens. I just have to work hard and try to get it better quick.”

Given an opportunity for the first time in his career to play every day and at last realize his potential as a power hitter, Pena now must watch from the dugout.

“It’s disappointing because finally we were willing to give the guy the opportunity to get 500 at-bats and see what he’s able to do,” Acta said. “And now another year is going to go by, and next year we’re probably going to be hearing the same thing about him. It’s just unfortunate.”

But one man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity and so ready to take Pena’s place is Dukes, the talented 23-year-old who spent yesterday morning talking at length about how far he has come in the last month with the Nationals. But by mid-afternoon he explained the cramping sensation in his right leg that forced him to leave the exhibition game against the Cleveland Indians in the third inning.

After sliding hard into second trying to break up a double play, Dukes remained on the ground for a few moments. Acta and head trainer Lee Kuntz eventually joined him, then he walked off the field under his own power.

Diagnosed with a right hamstring strain, Dukes expects to return to the lineup “within a day or two.”

“I probably caught a cramp probably going into the slide,” he said. “Maybe that’s what caused it. I don’t know, it happened so quick. But I know it was a little cramping feeling, a little soreness.”

This was as close to a hiccup as Dukes has experienced during an otherwise uneventful spring, which is what the Nationals hoped for when they acquired him from the Tampa Bay Rays in December. Dukes’ lengthy history of legal and social troubles have left him the subject of considerable scrutiny, but yesterday he spoke confidently about the positive changes he has made in his life and the warm reception he has received from his new teammates.

“They understand that people make mistakes here,” he said. “Some places, they don’t understand that. But here, a lot of guys understand that you make mistakes when you’re young and you always deserve a second chance at life. They gave me that second chance from Day 1. … It’s like, ‘OK, you’re family now.’ I can walk around here without looking over my shoulder. It’s a good feeling.”

Dukes’ on-field performance has been solid, though not spectacular. In 12 exhibition games, he’s hitting .267 with one homer, three RBI, four extra-base hits and a .389 on-base percentage. In the field, he has made a couple of blunders but also has displayed some impressive skills.

“He’s been as good as advertised,” Acta said. “Maybe the numbers don’t indicate that. But he’s shown us enough flashes of what he can do.”

The spotlight will shine brighter on Dukes now because he has an opportunity to play every day. He was close to locking up the fourth outfielder’s job. Now he must fill in for Pena, hoping his career and life changes have positioned him well for this new challenge.

“Everybody’s pulling for each other here, and that’s what I like,” Dukes said. “I’m not worried about being a fourth guy, a fifth guy. I know once I get my chance I’m going to take advantage of it. … I’m happy. I’m glad to be in this situation.”

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