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04/14/09 8:08 PM ET

Milledge demoted to Triple-A

Dukes likely to be Nationals' everyday center fielder

WASHINGTON -- The Nationals optioned center fielder Lastings Milledge to Triple-A Syracuse on Tuesday. The club has not announced a corresponding move.

Milledge was given the news about his demotion in a phone conversation with acting general manager Mike Rizzo.

Milledge, 24, is off to a slow start, batting .167 (4-for-24) with one RBI. Milledge was the leadoff hitter, and the front office didn't like the fact that he didn't take enough pitches to draw walks.

It was an adventure for Milledge in center field so far this season. On Opening Day against the Marlins on April 6, Emilio Bonifacio hit a ball that went over Milledge's head for an inside-the-park home run in the fifth inning.

The next day, Bonifacio hit a triple that went over Milledge's glove. In both cases, some people in the organization believe Milledge should have caught the ball. Not Milledge. He followed the scouting report, which said to play shallow.

"It was a shocker," Milledge said via telephone. "I thought I would be given more than 24 at-bats [to get it going]. Mike is the boss, so he has to do what was best for the team. He told me I needed to work on my hitting and defense."

The team had warned Milledge about a possible demotion since Opening Day. Members of the organization were upset that Milledge was late for a meeting held by manager Manny Acta the day before, and they wanted Milledge to sit out for Opening Day. Acta refused, however, so the team fined Milledge instead.

But Rizzo said character issues had nothing to do with the demotion. It was a matter of Milledge improving his game at Syracuse. Milledge will most likely play all three outfield positions and bat leadoff.

"He took the demotion like a professional," Rizzo said. "We had a good dialogue about a lot of things. He was unhappy and eager to show me that he belongs in the Major Leagues. Lastings Milledge plays extremely hard. I have very little problems with Lastings' attitude and his work ethic.

"A lot of things will tell us how long he is going to stay down in Triple-A. The progression of Lastings, the makeup of the ballclub, where we are at during the season, how we are playing ... will lead us to the answer.

The move most likely means that Elijah Dukes will be the everyday center fielder, while Austin Kearns and Josh Willingham will split time in right field. Dukes is swinging a hot bat, going 8-for-21 (.381) with a home run and five RBIs in six games. Kearns and Willingham are off to slow starts, so look for Acta to play the hot hand in that regard.

With Milledge gone, the Nationals also need a leadoff hitter. Cristian Guzman would have been the guy, but he strained his left hamstring against the Phillies on Monday and is more than likely headed for the disabled list.

The likely candidate will be second baseman Anderson Hernandez, who was activated from the disabled list on Monday. Last year, he was 18-for-58 (.368) with 13 RBIs from the top spot.

Rizzo declined to say who will get called up, but it is believed that outfielder Roger Bernadina and infielder Alex Cintron will be promoted from Syracuse.

Both players were productive during Spring Training, but they were not put on the 25-man roster from the start because the big league club was loaded with outfielders and infielders. The team has already lost infielder/outfielder Willie Harris to the DL because of a left oblique strain, while second baseman Ronnie Belliard is nursing a bad back.

Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.