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Nats Backup Bennett Works To Catch Up With Pitchers

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 25, 2005; Page D10

JUPITER, Fla., March 24 -- Gary Bennett didn't get a hit Thursday. Check the box score, and he didn't even get an at-bat. By the time Bennett pulled on his catcher's gear and settled in behind the plate for the Washington Nationals, starter Tomo Ohka had long since finished a four-inning outing against the St. Louis Cardinals. If there is mop-up duty for a catcher, this was it, playing the final few frames of a meaningless Grapefruit League game in which the relievers were just trying to get in their work and get back on the bus.

But Bennett can't approach it that way, not at this stage. In his world, there's nothing meaningless about any game, any inning, any pitch this spring training. He arrived here starting over with another new club.

The Nationals' Gary Bennett, above, is learning the pitching staff. "He's in a real tough position," starting catcher Brian Schneider said. (John McDonnell - The Washington Post)

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"He's in a real tough position," starting catcher Brian Schneider said, "not knowing any of these guys and never catching them before."

So Bennett's spring has been one long lesson on the Nationals' pitching staff. A journeyman who had played for Philadelphia, the New York Mets, Colorado, San Diego and Milwaukee -- all since 2001 -- he signed a one-year, $750,000 deal with Washington in November, and then went to work. He arrived at spring training early, and soon thereafter sat down with Schneider, the first of many sessions in which he has tried to build knowledge about the staff.

"In this job, you've got to pay attention," Bennett said. "You have to. You have to watch how they pitch, how they go about things, talk to Brian, talk to them, find out what their strengths and weaknesses are.

"Obviously, you want to pitch to your pitcher's strength; you don't want him to get beat with his third or fourth pitch.

"But you've got to get to the point where you know a guy well enough that if his best pitch and his second-best pitch aren't there, you've got to go somewhere else. And you need to know, with each guy, where to go."

Bennett said he is still in the middle of that process, and, over the next 10 days, it'll be tough to move it along. Schneider is the starter, and with the season approaching, he'll play the majority of games in order to get prepared. He appeared in 135 games last season, and his defense is Gold Glove-caliber. He led the majors by throwing out 47.8 percent of the runners who attempted to steal against him, and the team's pitching staff had an ERA of 3.86 with him behind the plate, two full runs less than when his backup, Einar Diaz, caught.

Diaz's inability to call good games and block balls in the dirt was one of the primary reasons Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden pursued Bennett, a .247 career hitter. Bennett, though, had other opportunities. The Cardinals called. A few clubs from the American League called. But Bennett thought about it. He was already going to have to learn a new pitching staff. Why try to learn a whole new league of hitters?

"Staying in the National League was absolutely a factor," Bennett said. "I didn't want to have to start from scratch."

He looked deeper at the situation. Schneider is a left-handed hitter. Bennett hits from the right side. He might be able to steal a start against a tough lefty. The fact that the Nationals were moving from Montreal to Washington, where he figured there would be new energy, was also a factor.

"I thought about all that stuff," he said.

So with a league full of hitters he's familiar with, Bennett has worked with each member of the Nationals' staff individually. Before exhibition games started, he made a point of catching each one in the bullpen. When Schneider starts, Bennett tries to hang out in the bullpen, watching the starters and talking to the relievers about their approach.

But it can be difficult, because Schneider likes to play -- a lot. "From a competitive standpoint, you want to be out there," Schneider said. "It doesn't matter who's backing you up."

That leaves Bennett, particularly late in spring training, without many opportunities to get to know the staff in live competition. He caught a couple of innings Wednesday, but he has just 18 at-bats -- and two hits -- all spring.

"Obviously, the best thing is catching in a game and getting out there where you get some action," Bennett said. "But a lot of it has to be catching on the side whenever you get a chance. You have to make the most of the opportunities you get. But I know how to do it. You watch. You talk to people. You listen, and you learn."

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