- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 8, 2009

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. | Rick Eckstein doesn’t recall the time, place or location, but he remembers exactly what Roger Bernadina said to him.

Bernadina had become one of the pet projects for the Washington Nationals‘ hitting coach ever since last July 11, when a swing that was too long cut short the outfielder’s first trip to the major leagues.

Bernadina had been hitting over .300 at Class AA Harrisburg, but his swing quickly found the Peter Principle in the major leagues - all the techniques he had used to mangle minor league pitching suddenly hit their level of incompetence against big league breaking balls.

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So Eckstein, then the hitting coach for Class AAA Columbus, put Bernadina through drills, had him watch video - anything to get idea of a shorter swing into his head. And one night, after Bernadina returned to the dugout having missed a pitch he could have stung, he said to Eckstein, “Man, I can feel it.”

“He could feel the length in his swing,” Eckstein said. “Great - once you can feel it, then you can start to address adjusting it. For me, in watching him and talking with him, that was the breakthrough moment. You can sit there and talk to a hitter about some of the issues he needs to consider, but unless he’s truly feeling them and understanding them, the adjustment period might take a little longer.”

Bernadina returned to the majors Sept. 1 and hit .306 in 16 games. An 0-for-5 day Saturday dropped his average to .250 this spring, but he’s improved his left-handed swing enough to be an outside candidate for a roster spot in the Nationals’ crowded outfield.

The work seems to have paid off.

“[Staying short] was the thing that kept me down whenever I was in the big leagues,” Bernadina said. “I’ve been working on it in the offseason. Right now, it works pretty good.”

The swing is the only question Washington has had about the 24-year-old. He’s a rangy outfielder who can play all three positions and flashed his defense again Friday with a pair of “SportsCenter”-replayed diving catches against the Orioles. He has showed the kind of intelligence with his speed that manager Manny Acta loves - he has stole 180 bases in 6 1/2 professional seasons while getting thrown out only 22 percent of the time - and his on-base percentage was .400 in the minors last year.

If only that swing stays short…

“He does [have a chance to make the team],” Acta said. “He’s a left-handed hitter. We’re loaded with right-handed hitters. That gives him an advantage because he can play above-average in the three outfield [spots]. We have a lot of spring training games left, but he can make things interesting for us.”

Bernadina showed that ability Friday, complementing his highlight-reel catches by punching a pair of doubles to right field. But he’s also been hitting to left this spring, which is not a place Bernadina has ever sent the ball consistently.

“When you have a short swing, you can get to different parts of the zone easier, so now you can use the whole field,” Eckstein said. “The longer swing - some people call it a ‘groove swing’ - you become one-side oriented because the bat head gets to a certain part of the zone at the same time. In our system, that’s something he’s going to have to be able to do is use the whole field. With that shorter swing, he’s able to do that.”

He might also be able to finish his surprising spring by landing a spot on the major league roster.

“His ability to shorten up his swing,” Acta said, “is what’s catching our eyes right now.”

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