WASHINGTON (Reuters) - There are few grander stages for a baseball player to display his talents or failings than center field in a Major League park. The Washington Nationals’ Lastings Milledge is learning this.
The Nats’ talented youngster casually fielded a single on Saturday by the Atlanta Braves’ Matt Diaz and lobbed it back to the infield. In that extra split second of the ball’s flight, Diaz scampered to second base with a gift double.
“I just botched the play,” Milledge said later. “I should have charged (the ball) a little harder ... I came up and then I kinda just flipped it and he took off. He took advantage of me.”
When Milledge returned to the dugout at the end of the inning, no one brought up his twin gaffes.
“No one had to say anything. He knows what he did,” said Nats catcher Paul LoDuca. “Mental errors are like that. You can live with the physical errors but the mental errors are tough. But you look at this way — maybe that’s the last time he’ll do that.”
It was not a key play in the Braves’ 10-2 victory but it may be a pivotal moment in the budding career of the 23-year-old Milledge, whose first name of Lastings was given him by his mother, convinced he would be her final child.
The Nats traded for Milledge over the winter, giving up popular catcher Brian Schneider and outfielder Ryan Church to the New York Mets.
The solid veterans may help the Mets become champions this season. The Nats got someone rated one of best prospects in U.S. baseball even before his May 2006 debut with the Mets at age 21.
Earlier, as a high school player, he was cited in a well-regarded baseball magazine as the top 16-year-old in the United States.
Now Milledge has to harness what scouts see as “five-tool” potential — the ability to run fast, field well, throw accurately, hit for average and hit for power.
Nats manager Manny Acta knows Milledge’s raw talent got him to the Major Leagues quickly and that it is at this level that he will have to refine his skills.
“He’s very coachable,” Acta said. “We’re not going to let up, we’re going to spend the whole year trying to teach him how to play the game right, the way we want him to play it. He’s going to be a star.”
On Sunday, when the Nats won 5-4, Milledge showed no signs of being dogged by the previous day’s mental lapses.
In the first inning he bunted for a single. He later walked, singled and doubled, and showed off a powerful arm by firing the ball home from left-center field.
But his base-running gamble in the bottom of the eighth with one out also characterized his abilities.
He was on third base when a ground ball was fielded cleanly by the Braves and tossed to first for the second out. Milledge broke late for home plate and was nailed for the third out.
Scribes in the press box were split on Milledge’s judgment to run home. His timing was off, but it showed knowledge of the game situation, speed and a willingness to pressure the opposition, they said.
“I thought I made it,” Milledge said later. Of course had he been called safe, it would have been deemed a smart play by his critics.
“He’s a young player, he’s going to make mistakes,” said catcher LoDuca.
As a Mets team mate the last two years, LoDuca saw what others saw, a very talented kid who was at times immature, like when he high-fived with fans after he hit his first home run.
“He’s getting better. He’s definitely getting better ... He’s going to become a better center fielder, too.” LoDuca said.
In the Nats gleaming new ballpark, Milledge wants to make center field his property.
“You have to know how the stadium plays, how the ball jumps off the bat, how it bounces off the wall,” he said. “I still have a lot of work to do before I’m the player I want to be.”
Editing by Dave Thompson