- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 12, 2009

VIERA, Fla. | The competition rages all around Lastings Milledge, a pair of battles for two corner outfield spots that could land any two of the following players - Josh Willingham, Austin Kearns, Elijah Dukes and Wily Mo Pena - on the bench for possibly the first time in their careers.

“This is probably the most crowded camp I’ve ever been in,” Willingham said. “They’re all capable big league players.”

Floating in the center of it all is Milledge, who arrives in the Space Coast Stadium clubhouse every day with a blithe spirit that makes it seem as if his job is one of the most secure in the Nationals’ outfield. The funny thing is, it might be.

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It wouldn’t have seemed that way at the end of last year, when criticism of Milledge’s defense shot out from every corner. Manager Manny Acta was questioned for playing him there. Fans groused about the routes Milledge took to chase down fly balls. Then-general manager Jim Bowden even hinted at a question-and-answer session in September that defensive changes could be made in the Nationals’ outfield, presumably to move Milledge to a corner spot.

But through a variety of circumstances - partly Acta’s unyielding confidence in the 23-year-old, partly because the Nationals are loaded with corner outfielders - Milledge is here this spring as the prohibitive center fielder.

On top of that, he hasn’t looked bad defensively this spring. Fly balls-turned-misadventures are much less frequent. Milledge says he’s more comfortable in center after learning hitters’ tendencies last year. It’s a spot he’s growing into - and one he doesn’t plan on giving up.

“People can say what they want to say,” Milledge said. “At the end of the day, it’s whatever the manager feels. If he feels I’m going to play center field, I’m going to play center field. I know [defense] is a side of the ball I have to get better on. Everybody knows it. I know it.”

Milledge said he hasn’t changed his preparation much, only asking new first-base coach Marquis Grissom about how to improve without overworking himself. If anything, Milledge said that’s what he did last year, taking fly balls by the bucketload to make up for lost time.

His only major league experience in center before last season was a two-week stretch with the New York Mets in 2007, leading to surprise when Milledge entered last season as the starter in center.

But over time, he said, he came back to a simple realization: Playing center field in the major leagues isn’t any different than what he’s been doing his whole life.

“It’s not difficult,” he said. “It’s simple. Let’s not make the game harder than it needs to be.”

He acknowledges he often took bad routes to fly balls last season and was caught out of position plenty of times. That, Milledge said, will improve after a year of familiarizing himself with where he needs to be.

Both Acta and Grissom have plenty of confidence putting Milledge in center, though Acta cautioned that center field is still “open” and that Milledge might play left field before the end of the spring.

And Milledge is learning from Grissom and special assistant Devon White, who have combined to win 11 Gold Gloves.

“He’s working very hard at it,” Acta said. “He’s taking it as a challenge. He knows he’s got the athleticism to play there. Those guys are a big help to him, but you’ve got to give credit to the guy. He’s listening, and he’s working hard.”

It’s not the first vote of confidence Acta has given to Milledge in center field. He has supported Milledge since he was the third-base coach during the outfielder’s rookie year with the Mets.

New York took him with the 12th overall pick in 2003, but the perception of Milledge as a top prospect dipped somewhat with the Mets in part because of a couple of underwhelming big league stints and a handful of on-field celebrations that have led some to peg him as a troublemaker.

Acta has never viewed him that way. He has penciled in Milledge into one of the top two spots in the lineup, where the Bradenton, Fla., native could improve on the 14 homers and 24 stolen bases he posted in his first full big league season.

“It does help that he’s behind me 100 percent,” Milledge said. “But I know I have a lot of work to do.”

That work eventually could silence the criticism and get Milledge to the place Grissom said all major leaguers dream of reaching.

“At the end, all you want to do is be remembered. That’s it,” Grissom said. “You look at a name like a Lastings Milledge or Elijah Dukes - that’s a name you should remember.”

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