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In the End, Home Is A Fair Place to Play

This Nats fan heads to the exit for the last time this season after Washington's home finale was canceled because of rain.
This Nats fan heads to the exit for the last time this season after Washington's home finale was canceled because of rain. (By Jonathan Newton -- The Washington Post)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 26, 2008

Only the rain, not home run balls, fell at Nationals Park last night, meaning the final shot to leave this stadium in its first year belonged to Florida's Josh Willingham, who blasted an eighth-inning Levale Speigner pitch some 360 feet on Wednesday night.

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The home run, the 148th and final to leave Nationals Park this season, offered a fitting look at the kind of balls that once were outs and now go for runs.

Willingham's home run carried toward the gap, typical of a pattern here. It landed two rows beyond the left field fence. It was a deserving home run, no cheapie. And, it wouldn't have been a home run at RFK Stadium.

While inaugurating their new ballpark this year -- the final, scheduled home game against Florida was rained out last night, and won't be rescheduled -- the Nationals gathered insight on its characteristics. And the final analysis? Unlike cavernous RFK, where the alleys were deep and the ERAs low, Nationals Park emerged as one of the most neutral in baseball.

"Fair. I like it," Manager Manny Acta said. "You know, we said all along there are no cheap home runs. Guys have to hit them, and we like that. It gives both teams equal opportunity."

According to ESPN.com's Park Factor data, which compares the rate of stats at home vs. the rate of stats on the road, 12 ballparks were more favorable to hitters. Seventeen were more favorable to pitchers. A Park Factor rating of 1.000 represents total neutrality, anything higher favoring hitters, and this year, Nationals Park received a 1.042 rating. In 2007, RFK earned a 0.874, 27th among ballparks in runs created.

"To me, it's in between," Acta said of Nationals Park. "I don't think anybody has a full advantage, but it's not like some of those ballparks where the pitcher would be afraid to make a mistake where it will be an automatic home run."

Some of the other new ballparks have turned into havens for hitters. Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park (opened in 2003) is a launching pad. Same with Arizona's Chase Field. Nationals officials didn't want that. Here, alleyways are closer than in RFK: left-center measures at 377 feet, right-center measures at 370. The RFK listed its power allies at 380, the actual measurement was closer to 395.

Players who spent their season here noticed, at least anecdotally, that balls carried in the gaps and often died when hit down the lines. "It carried better to the gaps," Lastings Milledge said.

"It was a fair place," Milledge said. "You're not going to get anything handed to you here. You have to hit it. Everything you hit here, you earn -- which is good."

Said outfielder Ryan Langerhans: "Some of it depended on the weather. If it was warm, the ball tended to carry a bit better. Nights when it might have been humid or cold it seemed like it didn't carry as well; early in the season, it was kind of dead, tough to get one out I don't think it's a yard where you're going to get any cheap ones."

Nationals Notes: Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman was still battling the flu yesterday and saw a doctor to receive treatment. Acta expected that Zimmerman would be available to play before season's end, but added, "I'm not expecting any miracle recovery." . . . Collin Balester, scheduled to start last night's game, will be bumped into tonight's series opener against the Phillies. John Lannan and Odalis PĂ©rez are scheduled to start tomorrow and Sunday, respectively. Rookie Shairon Martis, who was slated to start Sunday's game, will be available out of the bullpen.


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