Pitchers in Charge at RFK - for Now; Old Park Tough on Hitters Early

Article excerpt

Byline: Mark Zuckerman, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

From his box behind home plate on Opening Night at RFK Stadium, Washington Nationals general manager Jim Bowden couldn't help but jump out of his seat when Arizona Diamondbacks slugger Troy Glaus sent a long fly ball to left-center field.

"Oh God!" Bowden recalls thinking as he watched the Glaus shot sail toward the 380-foot sign. Moments later, though, the ball was caught by Nationals center fielder Ryan Church at the front edge of the warning track.

Two nights later, Bowden was jumping out of his seat again when Glaus sent another ball deep to left field. Again he was able to breathe easier when it landed in left fielder Brad Wilkerson's glove.

Finally, the following afternoon when Glaus got a hold of yet another one, Bowden managed to remain in his seat. He had been fooled twice before. He wasn't going to be fooled again. And sure enough, Glaus' hit proved nothing more than a harmless flyout to the track.

"I've adjusted pretty good," Bowden said this week. "I've got a feel for it now."

With 10 games at RFK under their belts, the Nationals also are starting to get a better feel for their new home. And though it's still early and the weather has yet to heat up, it's becoming obvious this ballpark is a pitcher's dream - and a home run hitter's nightmare.

"I think it's an enormous pitcher's park right now," catcher Brian Schneider said. "If you hit the ball, it's going to get out of here, I'm not saying it's not going to happen. But a lot of balls you think might get out are getting tracked down in the gap or bouncing off the wall."

The numbers so far back that up. Entering this weekend's three-game series with the New York Mets, RFK has surrendered only 11 home runs (seven by the Nationals, four by opponents). That works out to 1.1 homers a game, the third-lowest rate in baseball and well below the major league average of 1.92. Only San Diego's Petco Park (0.63) and the Mets' Shea Stadium (1.00) have been less hospitable to power hitters.

"As I said in spring training, I hadn't seen this park since 1971, but if you hit the ball good, it goes out of the ballpark. If you don't, a pitcher gets you out," said manager Frank Robinson, who hit nine homers at RFK as a member of the Baltimore Orioles from 1966 to 1971. "Especially this time of year, the air is heavy, and the ball doesn't carry as well."

The same fleeting moment of terror Bowden felt during Glaus' at-bats two weeks ago has been shared by plenty of Nationals players during their first homestands at RFK. Schneider has lost count how many times an opposing hitter has appeared to get a hold of one only to watch it fall short.

"I'm not going to say once a game, but it's probably happened five or six times since we've gotten here," Schneider said.

The Nationals had a hunch RFK would play big before they arrived in town. With the kind of large, symmetrical dimensions (335 feet down the lines, 380 feet to the gaps and 410 feet to center field) not seen in today's newer ballparks, RFK figured to favor pitchers.

That has been particularly true from gap to gap, where balls seem to go to die. Nearly all of the 11 homers have landed in the bullpens down each line. Hit one to left- or right-center? Forget it.

"It says 380, but it plays like it's 400," said Church, who homered into the right-field bullpen in the April3 exhibition game. "You have to know your limits and try to hit them down the lines. …