- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 25, 2009

NEW YORK | It wasn’t hard to see Citi Field getting a collective thumbs up from the Washington Nationals, given the cramped confines - and not to mention, the rats - that defined its predecessor.

Most players and coaches gave the ballpark positive reviews, its advantages numerous over the demolished Shea Stadium. One player said the 42,000-seat park puts Nationals Park, which opened just a year earlier, “to shame.”

Manager Manny Acta, who spent two seasons as the Mets’ third-base coach before coming to the Nationals, said earlier this week how much he was looking forward to seeing the new stadium. He wasn’t disappointed.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. “That’s the main thing nowadays when they build one of these new ones. It’s just gorgeous.”

After checking out the park’s bells and whistles, the Nationals set to work trying to determine how it will play. They arrived at 2:30 p.m. Friday to do extra hitting, just to see how balls bounce and what to expect in the asymmetrical outfield.

The park’s left-field wall quickly slopes to 18 feet, where it stays until a pair of odd cutouts in center field. The fence drops by several feet just to the left of the Mets’ signature Big Apple, which pops up over an 18-foot fence in dead center when the Mets hit a home run. Then the fence drops again but regresses to a whopping 415 feet from home plate in right-center. It also features a number of odd angles in right field, where the team put another 18-foot wall and pulled the fence back in several spots.

“It looks bigger, and the walls are higher,” Acta said. “We saw how the ball rolls, how the ball bounces around, threw some balls around. That’s the best you can do.”

Like with any other new ballpark, Citi Field has shown a few warts already. One stadium worker said the design of the bullpens, which has the teams separated by only a mesh fence, could be changed next year if the seats embedded in the right-field wall are removed. And the 415-foot fence in left-center meant the Nationals’ relievers would watch the game, as bullpen coach Randy Knorr put it, “from the parking lot.”

More than average

Acta has talked at different times this season about the improvement of right fielder Austin Kearns after a disastrous 2008, when he hit .217 with seven homers in 86 games. His batting average wouldn’t show that yet - Kearns entered Friday hitting .229 - but the rest of his production early this year hints at improvement.

His on-base percentage through 13 games is .386, about 30 points above his career average. His slugging percentage is .514 thanks to five of his eight hits going for extra bases, including two homers. And Kearns has driven in 10 runs, tied for second on the team.

“He’s hit a lot of balls hard. That’s why the batting average is not a big issue to me right now,” Acta said. “It’s quite a different swing than what we saw last year. We’ll continue to throw him out there and see what he can do. I think we can find enough at-bats for both [him and Josh Willingham].”

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