WASHINGTON - With men on first and third and one out in the second inning, Washington Nationals outfielder Elijah Dukes swung and missed badly at a pitch well out of the strike zone thrown by the Phillies' Jamie Moyer.

Three pitches later, Dukes was walking back to the dugout, having kept the bat on his shoulder as he watched another strike drift across the inside corner and the third strike waft along the outside corner.

The fourth inning was nearly a rerun. First and third again, although this time there were no outs. Another strikeout, this time swinging.

When the day was done, Dukes was batting a woeful .067 (2-for-30), the only major league player below .100 with at least 30 at-bats. He actually got a single in the seventh - with nobody on base - doubling his hit output for the season. By then, the Nationals' fate was already sealed in Wednesday's 12-2 loss to the Phillies.

It therefore wasn't too surprising when Manny Acta, a levelheaded manager who usually doesn't like to embarrass his players, essentially singled out Dukes when asked about the team's struggles with runners in scoring position.

"How about put the bat on the ball?" Acta said tersely. "Instead of striking out with a guy on third and less than two outs."

Actually, Acta's life would be easier if Dukes were indeed the only culprit. The Nationals seem determined to earn a nomination for Worst Hitting Outfield of All Time. The six players listed as outfielders on the roster are batting a combined .200 with six home runs and 46 RBI.

"Everybody's going through it," said Lastings Milledge, whose .241 average might be respectable if it weren't for the fact he's homered only once and has just 16 RBI. "The whole outfield's struggling. You can't single anybody out."

After Milledge, there's Wily Mo Pena (.220, 0 HRs, 5 RBI), Austin Kearns (.187, 3 HRs, 16 RBI) and Dukes (0 HR, 1 RBI). Acta also plays utility men Rob Mackowiak (.171, 1 HR, 4 RBI) and Willie Harris (.170, 1 HR, 4 RBI) in the outfield, but it's hardly worth the bother with those numbers. Kearns will have surgery today on his sore right elbow and is expected to miss 3 to 4 weeks.

"We only have so many choices," Acta said.

Without Kearns, it's sink or swim with the three youngsters: Pena is only 25, while both Milledge and Dukes are 23.

It's still early, but the trade that sent catcher Brian Schneider and outfielder Ryan Church to the New York Mets for Milledge is favoring the team from up north.

"We believe 5 years from now, when Lastings is 28, we'll look back and say in the long run the Nats got the best of it, and in the short run the Mets got the best," general manager Jim Bowden said. "With that comes development pains and learning. That being said, we also expected them to hold their own, which some of them are not . . . It's very painful at times to watch."

Pena and Dukes are paying the price for being rushed to the majors. Pena signed his first major league contract at age 17 and ran out of options by the time he was 20, so his teams (Cincinnati, then Boston) had to keep him at the big-league level.

The Nationals have been extremely protective of Dukes, who was acquired this offseason despite a litany of legal and personal issues. They want to keep a close eye on him rather than send him out of town to give him a chance to gain some confidence by hitting against minor league pitching.

"In the case of Wily Mo, absolutely, the clubs have been forced to have him in the major leagues and he wasn't able to develop properly," Bowden said. "In the case of Elijah, there's a lot of different circumstances that surround him that are very unique, and we feel it is better to develop him here than in the minor leagues, and with that is going to come growing pains. There's going to be failures before we have success, and that's what we're having now."

The Nationals have attempted to enforce a policy that requires a team employee to be present whenever Dukes is interviewed. When an interview request was made following Wednesday's game, a public relations representative said Dukes would not be available.

In addition to the lack of outfield punch, the Nationals also have the usual run of injuries. First basemen Nick Johnson and Dmitri Young, catcher Paul Lo Duca and closer Chad Cordero have all spent time on the disabled list. If not for unexpectedly solid performances from the starting pitchers, Washington would be much worse off than its 20-28 record.

"I'm very happy with how these guys have battled," Acta said. "I'm content that we've been able to win 20 games with the offense we have so far." *