- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 7, 2009

MIAMI

This is supposed to be the season the Washington Nationals mature - as individuals, as a team, on the field and off the field.

This is a young team that doesn't want to use youth as an excuse anymore, certainly not among its core group of position players: Ryan Zimmerman, Lastings Milledge, Elijah Dukes, Jesus Flores.

Well, if Monday's Opening Day 12-6 trouncing at the hands of the Florida Marlins is at all a sign of things to come, the Nationals still have a long way to go before they're all grown up.

You can point to any number of developments out of Monday's game, not to mention Sunday's workout, as evidence of that. And it's not just about on-field performance; it's about attitude off the field.

In that regard, let's begin with Milledge, who put himself at a disadvantage before he ever put on his uniform.

Sunday was Milledge's 24th birthday. The last thing he probably wanted to do to celebrate was go to Dolphin Stadium for a pre-Opening Day workout and team meeting. But that's what every Nationals player and coach was required to do. No exceptions.

Milledge, who has a history of showing up just before the mandatory reporting time and isn't ashamed of it, didn't quite make it on time Sunday. Manager Manny Acta had instructed everyone to be in uniform and in the clubhouse by 4:30 p.m. for his annual season-opening team meeting.

Milledge called to say he was running late, but he still walked in after Acta already had begun addressing his players. The manager had no choice but to fine him.

You can debate whether this is a big deal. In some regard, it's really not. But for a young player who has been afforded plenty of opportunities in his brief baseball career, this was perhaps the latest sign Milledge still needs to grow up.

The Nationals are counting on big things from Milledge this year. Acta didn't hesitate to name him the starting center fielder and leadoff man in mid-March, even when there were more established outfielders on the roster worthy of a starting job.

With Dukes, Josh Willingham and Willie Harris all clamoring for more playing time, it is imperative that Milledge not only play up to his immense talent but also that he show the kind of effort expected from a top major leaguer.

Every other player on the Washington roster was at Dolphin Stadium well before the meeting Sunday. The clubhouse was packed at 3:30 p.m. with guys watching television, playing cards, playing Scrabble or working out. What entitles Milledge to special treatment?

Milledge only compounded matters Monday on the field. He stepped to the plate in the first to face the first pitch of the 2009 season. And he swung at it, grounding out meekly to second base.

Upon being named the new leadoff hitter last month, Milledge spoke about how he wasn't going to change his hitting approach just because he was penciled into a new spot in the lineup. He was going to remain aggressive.

Is that the kind of mature approach to hitting the Nationals were looking for? Isn't it the leadoff man's primary job to work the count, give his teammates a chance to see what the opposing starter has got and hopefully reach base in the process?

After countless hours spent working on his defensive skills this spring with coaches Marquis Grissom and Devon White, shouldn't Milledge have been expected to position himself better and get a better jump on Emilio Bonifacio's fourth-inning drive to deep center field? What could have been a harmless flyout - or at worst a double - instead turned into a highlight that was sure to be replayed on ESPN all night: an inside-the-park home run.

Let's not pick entirely on Milledge because he was far from the only culprit during Monday's debacle.

Zimmerman committed one error on a routine grounder, getting lazy and making a too-casual throw to first that bounced in the dirt. The wannabe Gold Glover also botched the next play, a slow bouncer that was ruled a hit but was a play Zimmerman would be the first to say he should have made.

Starter John Lannan, meanwhile, suffered through a miserable afternoon on the mound and at the plate. Allowing six runs in three innings was bad enough. Popping up a sacrifice bunt attempt in the third - when the score was only 2-0 - was inexcusable. Nationals pitchers had all kinds of trouble getting down bunts a year ago. Name one good ballclub that struggles with the fundamentals like that.

Yes, this was Game 1 of 162. Yes, the entire story line could change by the end of the week.

But for a team that desperately needs to mature this season both on a personal and a collective level, the Nationals sure played and acted their age on Opening Day.

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