- The Washington Times - Monday, August 24, 2009

For the better part of two seasons, the Washington Nationals have been trying to reconcile Elijah Dukes, the undeniable talent, with Elijah Dukes, the unsolvable enigma. As he did last year, the outfielder has shown stretches of ability that seem to signal he’s ready to cement his place in the Nationals’ lineup for years to come, only to regress into prolonged slumps and battle persistent injuries.

August has shown that struggle in microcosm. Dukes began the month with 12 RBI in his first eight games, only to see that morph into the 10-for-47 slump he carried into Sunday. And now he has a minor injury to contend with.

Interim manager Jim Riggleman scratched Dukes from the lineup before Sunday’s game against Milwaukee, giving Mike Morse his first start for the Nationals. Riggleman said Dukes has a blister on his left thumb that has been bothering him for several days and made it too uncomfortable to swing a bat.

“He’s been a little concerned about his swing and his mechanics and stuff,” Riggleman said. “He’s just not real comfortable with his thumb. It’s just a little too sore to play, really.”

It’s not a serious injury, but it adds another element to what has been a puzzling year. Dukes began the season as the favorite to start in right field, only to lose that job to Austin Kearns in spring training. Dukes played his way back into the lineup early, putting himself on pace to drive in more than 100 runs in early May.

But that’s when he went on the disabled list with a left hamstring strain, and Dukes wasn’t the same player when he came back in June. He hit .198 that month, driving in just six runs in 23 games and getting optioned to Class AAA Syracuse to figure out his swing and return to a corner outfield spot after floundering in center field.

He was recalled at the beginning of August, which gave way to his current run of opposing superlatives. If there’s one way to boil down Dukes’ inconsistencies, it’s his ability to hit breaking pitches. He began the month comfortable hitting the ball the other way but still lapses into periods when he tries to pull too many pitches.

“The turning point is going to come when he can really recognize the breaking ball,” Riggleman said. “The great hitters in the game, they recognize that spin sooner and lay off the bad pitches.”

Burnett bruises thumb

Reliever Sean Burnett took a line drive off his left thumb in the seventh inning Sunday and had to come out of the game after retiring Felipe Lopez to finish the inning.

X-rays on Burnett’s thumb were negative, and the left-hander said he would be ready to pitch again in a few days after the swelling goes down.

Rotation switch coming?

The Nationals originally listed Garrett Mock as the probable starter for Tuesday’s game against the Cubs in Chicago, and John Lannan was scheduled to pitch Thursday. But both were removed from a list of probable starters Sunday.

Indications are the Nationals might be considering moving Lannan up to Tuesday since he threw just 43 pitches in 1 2/3 innings Saturday night. That would give Mock a few extra days of rest or allow the Nationals to shuffle their rotation at the end of the series.

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