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Posted at 08:30 AM ET, 03/06/2012

Rick Ankiel’s new approach pays off, two Nationals minor leaguers impress


Rick Ankiel is making a small but significant change to his approach at the plate this spring. He has relaxed his shoulders and hands, an adjustment made to help stay back and drive the ball to all fields, to not be purely a pull hitter. In his first handful of at-bats, Ankiel has shown clear progress.

In the Nationals’ first game, he smashed a double off the center-field wall. Monday night against the Mets, Ankiel roped an opposite-field home run over the left-field fence off starter Dillon Gee.

“It’s always good to have results, especially the stuff you’re working on,” Ankiel said. “It just builds confidence for the stuff you’re doing. It drives you that much more to stay committed to the approach.”

Only two of Ankiel’s 64 career regular-season home runs have been hit to left field, with six going out to left-center, so the blast was no small feat for Ankiel, spring training or not.

Ankiel’s agent Scott Boras “kept telling me, ‘Tell him to use the opposite field,’ ” Manager Davey Johnson said. “In high school, he was like a .580 hitter using the whole field. I said, ‘Well, he kind of likes hitting the ball over the right-field wall.’ He’s been really impressive.”

Working with hitting coach Rick Eckstein, Ankiel wants to take the tension out of his swing. He feels he needs to make a habit of it spring, so that the intensity of the regular season does not affect his new approach.

“You just go out there and try to stay committed to it,” Ankiel said. “Sometimes within the game, the game can speed up on you. It’s the big-league level. So sometimes it’s hard to control the emotions and stay in that relaxed state.”

Ankiel grew up about 15 minutes from Digital Domain Park, in neighboring Fort Pierce, and he attended Port St. Lucie High School. (Ankiel is in the Jaguars’ athletic Hall of Fame.) Ankiel received a loud ovation in his first at-bat. Before the game, he spotted some old teachers and his high school athletic director in the stands.

>>> The most jaw-dropping play of Monday night’s game was made by a player the Nationals brought over from the minor league side of camp. Shortstop Zachary Walters, the player the Nationals received from in the Arizona Diamondbacks when they traded Jason Marquis, made an all-out dive to stop a ball behind second base, snaring even after it took a late, high hop.

“I just closed my eyes,” Walters said. “And the ball was in my glove when I opened them.”

Walters has opened some eyes with his athleticism. He plays all around the infield, but second base is “my Achilles’ heel,” Walters said. “The way the bal comes off the bat, the footwork around second, it’s a little different world over there. I like taking my time at short, third. Second base, that’s too much movement for me.”

Before Monday’s game, Walters, who was born in Montana, asked Johnson if he could help him with his defense at second. “He’s the man when it comes to second base,” Walters said. Johnson has said he plans to work with Anthony Rendon at second, and now he may include Walters in those sessions. Johnson, it seems, has taken a liking to Walters.

“I didn’t know they played ball in Montana,” Johnson said. “I thought all they did was hunt elk.”

>>> Eury Perez showed off the speed that makes him one of the fastest players in the Nationals’ system. As a pinch runner, he scooted from first to third on a hit-and-run with Steve Lombardozzi on a single hit into shallow left-center. Later, Perez also hit a double to left.

“I really the like the way he’s swinging the bat compared to what I saw a couple years ago and last year,” Johnson said. “He shortened his swing. He’s more direct to the ball. He’s a little bit bigger. I like everything I’m seeing from him.”

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Harper doesn’t get tired

Wang’s simulated start

Today’s lineup vs. Atlanta

Davey’s attitude

By  |  08:30 AM ET, 03/06/2012

 
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