The Washington Times - March 1, 2012, 04:22PM

VIERA, Fla. — At age 32, Rick Ankiel is among elite company in the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse. Of the 53 players in major league camp, Ankiel is one of just 13 who are age 30 or older. A seasoned veteran of the major leagues having made his debut 13 years ago as pitcher, it’s tough sometimes to remember that because of how unique his career path has been Ankiel, the hitter, is entering just his sixth major league season.

And he’ll go into it with a new-look swing that, he hopes, will help him to be less of a pull hitter.

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Last year, Ankiel’s stance was compact and his arms were always close to his body. As Nationals manager Davey Johnson described it this week “he’d hunch his shoulders up because he wanted to keep his swing tighter.”

But with an undefined role on the Nationals’ roster (Ankiel, who signed a minor league deal with the team in February, could be the Nationals’ Opening Day center fielder, he could be part of a platoon, he could be their fourth outfielder and he could find himself off the roster altogether), he decided he’d try to loosen things up. It may make it easier for him to keep his swing and timing right in pinch hitting situations or if he’s not playing every day.

“I just wanted to be a little more free,” he said. “Free and easy. At times last year, I just felt my hands might have been a little too close to me and I just felt a little tense in there. I’ve been working on being free and easy.”

Ankiel’s spent time with Nationals hitting coach Rick Eckstein to re-work his swing and put himself in a more “relaxed” position when he’s at the plate while still keeping his swing short. 

“Stan Musial used to talk about ‘The most important thing in hitting is relax, relax, relax, relax,’” Johnson said. “To see (Rick) in a more relaxed mode, I think you’re going to see a much better year out of him.”

Ankiel, a left-handed hitter, feels the change may also help him to direct the ball more, so he’s not always pulling it to right field. Ankiel had 91 hits last year, nine of them home runs. Of those nine, seven were hit to right field or right center. It’s a small sampling of his offensive output in 2011 but it is emblematic of his tendencies as a hitter.

“I can feel the difference,” he said. “For me, I’ve got a chance to manipulate the ball in more areas (with the new stance), versus only covering a certain area.”

He’s already impressed his manager by making the change.

“It’ll help him in every aspect of hitting,” Johnson said. “I like to see a hitter more relaxed, going from a relaxed position to a firm position, trying to be quick and shorter. It should help him a lot.

“I was exposed to a lot of great hitters either as teammates or had conversations with them and I like to talk to hitters about themselves and tell them what Im seeing that’s positive. Whenever I see something like that, I like it a lot better.”