- The Washington Times - Monday, February 27, 2006

VIERA, Fla. — The Washington Nationals noticed, and so has USA Baseball.

Catcher Brian Schneider’s offensive numbers have risen steadily in the past four seasons. The Nationals saw the trend and reacted quickly by rewarding Schneider with a four-year, $16 million contract extension this offseason.

Team USA believes Schneider is one of the top American catchers and named him to the team for this week’s World Baseball Classic. Schneider joins catchers Michael Barrett and Jason Varitek on the U.S. 30-man roster.

The Nationals are confident Schneider’s offensive numbers will continue to rise.

Last season, Schneider hit .268 with 10 home runs, 20 doubles and 44 RBI in 116 games. His .409 slugging percentage was the highest of his career in a season with 100 or more games. He also reduced his strikeouts from 63 the year before to 48 last season.

Playing in the WBC should give the left-handed swinging Schneider an added confidence boost.

“It will definitely give me more confidence,” Schneider said. “It’s going to give me a chance to be able and go out and meet a lot of the guys throughout the league that I might never have a chance to play with again, and it gets you ready for the season. I know I might miss out on some at-bats or some innings.”

Defensively, Schneider is one the game’s best. Last season, he gunned down 29 of 77 (37.7 percent) would-be basestealers, which led the National League and was second best in baseball. His three passed balls tied for fewest in the league among starting catchers who played at least 100 games. His four pickoffs tied for third in MLB.

Despite his impressive numbers, Nationals manager Frank Robinson still believes Schneider has room to improve.

“I’m very proud of Brian the way he has progressed over the years, especially since he’s been the everyday catcher,” Robinson said. “He’s improved in his offensive part of the game, he’s improved in his defensive part of the game and he’s improved in his overall play — pitch-calling. There’s no reason why, and I expect him to continue to make that type of progress and continue to improve overall. Not just in his offense. I still think Brian has room to improve defensively and calling of games and handling the pitching staff in situations.”

At 29, Schneider is entering his third season as the Nationals’ starting catcher. Given the uncertainty surrounding the Nationals’ starting pitching, Schneider’s absence at the WBC means the new pitchers vying for a job in the rotation will have to work most of spring training without the player who will catch a majority of the Nationals’ games this season.

Luckily for Robinson, Schneider knows ace Livan Hernandez, right-hander John Patterson and most of the bullpen from last season.

“Schneider is a good all-around catcher,” Patterson said. “He’s solid. He’s easy to work with. He’s got a quick release, a good arm and he’s improving his hitting. It’s hard to find catchers that really hit because they have to focus so much on catching. He’s open minded. Like I go to him and tell him how I want to pitch that night, what I’m trying to do to the guys, and he tries to stick to that plan. There were very few times last year when we weren’t on the same page at all.”

Robinson has been Schneider’s manager the past four seasons and has watched his development, especially his hitting. In his first full season with the Montreal Expos in 2002, Schneider hit .275 in just 73 games as Barrett’s backup. In 2003, Schneider hit .230 in 108 games. The following season Schneider hit .257, and last year he raised his batting average again.

“Overall, what I think it is is experience,” Robinson said. “The knowledge of situations, feeling comfortable. That shows in both parts of his game, especially his offense, because he’s made consistent strides. Before he was able to hit for short periods of time and have success. But when he went into a little slump or whatever, it would be a skid, almost back down to point zero before he got started again. The things that he is doing now he understands himself as a hitter more and better. He’s now able to keep that downswing shorter and the upswing longer.”

For most of the second half of last season, Schneider battled right-shoulder bursitis and did not play in the Nationals’ final 10 games.

With his shoulder healthy, Schneider is expecting good things this season — and so are the Nationals.

“My confidence keeps going up every year,” he said. “I’m getting more comfortable with going out there and playing every day. I’m still learning. One of my goals every year is not to set numbers where I wanted to be, just improve on what I did last year. Once you get more at-bats through your career, you get more confident and you’re going to become better and better every day you go out there.”

Got a question about the Nats?

Mark Zuckerman has the answers. The Times’ beat reporter for the

Nationals will respond to your questions on-line and in print each

Monday, beginning Feb. 27. Send questions to Mark at natsmailbag [AT]

washingtontimes.com

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