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 VIERA, Fla. (AP) -Wily Mo Pena smacked a ball so far it not only cleared the left-field fence at the practice field, it landed on the tin roof over batting cages about 30 feet further away. Clank!
Next up was Elijah Dukes. Nearly the same landing spot. Clank! ``Oh, mercy!'' Jim Bowden yelped.
Next up was Lastings Milledge. All he did was drive liner after liner to the gaps.
It was only batting practice, and it was only spring training, and, yes, it was only Day 1 of full-squad workouts, but Bowden, the Washington Nationals' general manager, could hardly contain his enthusiasm Friday.
He knows his team has more talent, more depth and more competition for spots than a year ago.
``Tremendous. We've made big progress,'' Bowden said while watching Pena, Dukes and Milledge hit. ``Especially these three right here. Tremendous athletes to add to the group.''
None of that trio of outfielders was at spring training with Washington in 2007.
Dukes and Milledge came over in offseason trades. Pena arrived from the Boston Red Sox in an August deal and hit .293 with eight homers and 22 RBIs in 37 games with Washington.
The Nationals averaged 3.9 runs per game before the deal, 5.0 afterward.
``We hit pretty well the second half of the season last year, after Wily Mo came over,'' third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. ``I'll take five runs a game. You're going to win a lot of games if you score five, six runs a game. We realize how good we could be.''
Pena is slated to start in left field, with Milledge in center. Dukes will compete for a job.
The Nationals entered last season with barely any significant square-offs for playing time, but it was evident Friday how much that has changed.
When the infielders gathered for some work, manager Manny Acta was hitting fungos to both Cristian Guzman and Felipe Lopez at shortstop, while Nick Johnson and Dmitri Young alternated catching balls at first base.
Guzman enters camp as the starter at shortstop, with Ronnie Belliard the incumbent at second - and Lopez, an NL All-Star in 2005, hoping to supplant one or the other. Young gets the nod over Johnson as of now, while the latter works to prove he is all the way back from the broken right leg that forced him to miss all of 2007.
``We have a player that has some experience at every position. It's a lot easier to get your work done. You don't make a lot of mistakes doing drills out there, like we used to,'' Zimmerman said. ``Everything is easier. Everyone is more confident.''
A year ago, the Nationals came to Florida knowing they no longer had veterans and contributors such as Alfonso Soriano, Jose Guillen and Jose Vidro in the lineup. So Acta's approach was to explain how it was the team could still win games despite those departures, including improving the defense (which went from 131 errors in 2006 to 109 in 2007).
Now, after a better-than-predicted 73-89 Year 1, Acta enters his second season with a similar message.
And more players to help achieve what he wants to achieve.
``My goal last year was to prove to these guys that despite all the big names leaving our club that if we got better at certain areas of the game, we could make up for that. I think we proved that to them. And now with the couple of extra players we have over here, (if we) continue to do the same thing, I hope we get better,'' he said.
``This year is basically going to be based on not being satisfied with what we did last year,'' Acta added. ``Last year is over and everybody got paid for it. We did get better at what we wanted them to get better at, but we're still not there.''

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