Nats Are Winning. How Cool Is That?

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, April 17, 2007

In the first inning at frigid, drizzling and wind-whipped RFK Stadium last night, rookie Matt Chico got two quick outs, then gradually began to turn into a snowman. As the wind dried his hand, the ball felt slick. As the cold chilled the San Diegan's body, his pitches began to bounce. The longer he stood on the mound, blowing on his hand to warm his fingers, the worse his plight became.

Once more, the dominant themes of baseball this spring came to the fore: fear of frostbite for players, blooper highlights aplenty and tiny crowds who come dressed for the Arctic, not for April. As Chico walked the bases loaded, his hopes for an easy inning, with its promise of a quick trip back into the heated dugout, became a receding dream.

Yet as he prepared for his 36th pitch of an interminable inning, the Nats didn't call a mound meeting. Why run the risk of a full-scale mutiny? Yet the unexpected happened. Chico escaped the first inning, then followed the advice of catcher Brian Schneider, who noted that the wind was blowing in and the Atlanta Braves hitters were freezing, just like everybody else, so "throw it down the middle." And the young left-hander did, taking a shutout into the sixth and eventually winning his first big league game, 5-1.

"Tough weather out there and the kid battled through it," Manager Manny Acta said. "I didn't think he'd make it through five [innings] after that long first inning. But he did. We have to give it up for these guys, playing like this in these conditions.

" 'I live for this,' just like the [MLB] motto says,' " Acta said, "but I don't think I'd make it to the ballpark today if I were a fan."

Few did. Perhaps a 10th of the announced crowd of 16,316 actually showed up to appreciate a remarkably crisp game in which Dmitri Young, proud to wear No. 42 in honor of baseball's "Jackie Robinson Day," represented his hero admirably with a single and long doubles that pummeled the fences in both power gaps. However, the core of this game, and of the past week for the Nats, is the intensity that a much-mocked Washington team has brought to its play at exactly the point when morale might have been tested most severely. After an abysmal 1-8 start in which they were frequently abused, the Nats have played their last four games in bone-cold conditions, yet won three against the first-rate Mets and Braves by a combined 13-3.

"It is encouraging," Acta said. "We've got to be out there. So we might as well give it our all."

But many teams, especially a club inundated by dismal preseason predictions, might easily not. Somehow, the Nats almost seem invigorated by the cold. At third base, Ryan Zimmerman, who may have broken out of a slump with two line drive hits, spits in his glove between pitches to keep it lubricated "so it won't get so cold and hard that the ball might bounce off it."

In center field, Ryan Church mutters: "It's not cold. It's beyond cold" -- but leads the team in hitting. Shortstop Felipe Lopez wears a mask, which, by the middle innings, is pulled down over his forehead and up over his chin so that only his eyes are visible between the slits of cloth. Yet he saw well enough to rip three hits.

However, Ronnie Belliard and Young, the right side of the Washington infield, take the prize in the polar expedition look-alike contest. "Some people say a couple of my guys look fat," Acta said. "They're just wearing a lot of layers."

Actually, Young also took a hot shower before the game then covered his body in baby oil to close the pores of his skin. Other players do the same, although one Nats regular said: "No more baby oil for me. I got a rash."

"All that stuff -- the baby oil, the Vaseline some players rub on -- it helps for a while. It blocks some of the wind," Young said. "But once you work up a sweat, you're done."

Work up a sweat? If only anybody in baseball could. The whole sport prays for one warm day. The Indians, frozen out in Cleveland, had to move three home games to the domed ballpark in Milwaukee. Sunday's initial celebration of "Jackie Robinson Day" was crimped by six postponed games, the most games lost to weather on any day in a decade. So far, Seattle's had five games postponed.

"I had to bear down just to get a grip on the ball," said Chico, who plans to mount and frame the lineup cards.

No sane person wants to play or watch baseball on such nights. So, to a degree, these games become the purest test of will. The team that hates the weather less -- or, perhaps, has the best clubhouse morale -- has an edge. In some cases, wealthy veteran teams may have less motivation than hungry clubs such as the Nats. Or at least that's what they tell each other as they shiver.

Ever since an Acta team meeting last week, in which the manager showed confidence in his young team rather than criticizing it, the Nats have returned to the presentable play they showed the last three weeks in Florida. Accepting game after game of miserable weather, and playing through it, has been part of this partial turnaround. "It's the same for both teams," said Church, hitting .340. "You just have to remember to heat the pine tar before you go in the on-deck circle."

Acta also has made this torture easier to bear. "We've canceled batting practice for three of the last four games," he said. "It feels cruel to send them out there for BP. It's enough just making them suffer during the game."

He said this on what he called "another 40-40 night -- 40 degrees, 40 miles per hour wind."

Few fans are loony enough to endure such nights. But teams can't postpone games simply because East Capitol Street becomes Antarctica. There aren't enough open dates to reschedule cancellations of convenience. Fans? They can watch on TV if they don't want to catch pneumonia. So, the players bear the brunt. And they know it.

"Are they going to bang this one?" asked Schneider plaintively before the game, using the slang for "cancel." No such luck. At least Schneider stays active all game, even warming his hands on a pocket heater between pitches. Relievers don't even get to seek the solace of the clubhouse between innings. Instead, they sit in RFK's coldest spot, near the large open "wind tunnel" in the right field corner, bundled under jackets with parkas on top, like motionless Iditarod racers.

Closer Chad Cordero, who already wears his hat so low over his eyes that he can't see hitter's faces, wishes he could wear a hood-like ski mask, like Lopez. "That'd be awesome, intimidating," Zimmerman said. "You can't see his eyes now. With a mask, it'd look like he didn't even have a face."

"They won't let pitchers use 'em," laments Cordero. "Our faces have to freeze."

All the Nats know which teammates suffer worst in RFK. No other field is as cold as right field, where the tunnel effect has made Austin Kearns the team's poster child for misery. "Sometimes you look at Kearns and he's hunched forward and has his arms wrapped around himself to stay warm," Zimmerman said. "He looks like a little kid who's pouting."

This spring, as a whole, has been the worst that almost anyone in baseball can remember. But, for the Nats, it may have been a chilly spring of bonding. The weather's cold, but the Nats are hot?

"Oh, don't give 'em too much credit," said pitcher Shawn Hill, who grew up in Ontario. "We played baseball when it was hailing and it was minus-15 degrees. Until there's snow on the ground and the wind's blowing it sideways, it's not cold."

Be careful. April's not over yet.

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