Fun Even Before the Games Begin

Nationals' Big Sluggers Bring Punch to Batting Practice, Hope to Season

The Washington Nationals make their spring training debut in a 4-1 loss to the Florida Marlins in Viera, Fla.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 1, 2008; Page E04

VIERA, Fla., Feb. 29 -- Standing with his or her back to the Washington Nationals' batting cage, with no idea who's hacking away, an experienced observer would be able to pinpoint the player producing the noise. Friday morning, that sound -- "Whack!" would do it a disservice, because it is so much more distinct -- came from the cage.

"You can tell," right fielder Austin Kearns said as he stood to the side. "It's just different."

With that, Wily Mo Peña -- 265 pounds of Popeye forearms and redwood thighs -- lashed at a pitch and sent it well over the berm that sits beyond the left field wall at Space Coast Stadium. "You think he got that?" Kearns asked. The next pitch made that sound, as if Peña swung the trunk of a tree, not just 34 ounces of it. He sent it on a line, farther than the last.

There is no lovelier rhythm at spring training than batting practice -- bunt, bunt, swing, swing, swing, swing, swing, new guy -- and the Nationals now have reason to consider it that much more beautiful. During one round Friday morning, prior to the Nationals' 4-1 loss to the Florida Marlins, Peña, Elijah Dukes, Lastings Milledge, Alex Escobar and Kearns took their lashes, rotating through, with onlookers taking in 1,114 pounds of slugger spraying balls around.

"We got some guys with pop," Peña said. "Big time."

This was not always the case. In the franchise's first three seasons since moving from Montreal, no team in baseball scored fewer runs than the Nationals' 4.2 per game. No team in the National League hit fewer than their 404 homers. Since Alfonso Soriano departed after the 2006 season -- and Soriano's bat makes one of the most identifiable sounds in baseball during BP -- the Nationals haven't been much to watch in the cage, either.

This season, with the gates to Nationals Park scheduled to open in time for fans to catch the home team hit, there might be a reason to show up early.

"That's part of the improvement we made over here," Manager Manny Acta said Friday. "But BP needs to translate into games. You don't get points, you don't get runs, you don't get anything for a great batting practice."

Maybe, though, you get a little bit of fun. Bowden remembers, when he was starting out with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the late 1970s, the shows that sluggers Willie Stargell and Dave Parker used to put on from the cage. During one spring training, the Pirates faced the Kansas City Royals -- with such professional hitters as George Brett, Hal McRae, Willie Aikens and Amos Otis -- and the two teams dazzled. Bowden also had, in one tiny ballpark in Cincinnati, Pe¿a, Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn; the latter two have combined to hit 831 home runs.

"But my favorite batting practice to watch since the Pirate-Royal one has been the Yankees," Bowden said. "It's because of the professional approach they take to every session, where they're always working on things. It's not a show, but it's dead serious work preparing for a game, which is the kind of BP I like. I don't get impressed by power shows. I get impressed by guys hitting the ball hard, going the other way."

Thus, the Nationals are trying to take that approach to their sessions this spring, whether they hit balls out or not. Milledge, 22, began his round Friday by lining the first pitch he saw hard to right field, the next one harder to the gap in right-center.

"It only makes baseball sense," Milledge said. "I have to be able to do that to succeed."

Kearns, Peña and Dunn all came up with the Reds within a year of one another, and the batting practice stories from those seasons -- which include Griffey -- are legendary. When Kearns arrived in Washington via a trade in July 2006, new teammates told him to watch Soriano, who clubbed 46 homers in his one season with the Nationals.

"Pound for pound, he's great," Kearns said of Soriano. "But Wily Mo, him and Dunn were probably the furthest of anybody I've seen. Wily Mo, he just hits those missiles that are on one plane -- and then they take off. . . . He hits things that look like a 2-iron that might kill somebody."

Even Peña, though, took some time to develop his batting practice approach. In Cincinnati, Kearns recalled, "it was, 'Let me see how far I can hit every one.' " Now, the first few rounds, Peña said he's looking for the ball on the outside part of the plate.

"I need to go to right field, right-center," Peña said. "I need to be able to do that in BP all the time, so when I get in the game I do it, and then I just react to the ball in here," he said, holding his hand on the inside part of the plate, the pitch he can pull.

Dukes, too, can scald balls, and he did so several times on Friday. Sessions like this are why Acta believes there is "no doubt" the Nationals will hit more than the 123 homers they did a year ago, fewest in the NL.

Bowden, too, is impressed. He said Milledge and Dukes "have an approach. They try to go the other way. They try to go up the middle. They're not trying to hit for power. But because they have so much power, it's loud, it's quick, it's hard, it's special."

Special on a sunny Friday morning in February, however, means little in a month or two -- no matter the sound, and no matter how many jaws drop.

"BP is just BP," Bowden said. "That's all it is. It's like going to a golfing range and you hit it 400 yards. It doesn't matter if you get on there and you can't hit the ball in the hole."

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