WASHINGTON - Forget about a soft mound and a loose infield. Eight innings of scoreless and nearly hitless baseball shone an intense light on a new problem at renovated RFK Stadium yesterday.
Glaring sunshine in the outfield and hovering shadows around home plate made it nearly impossible to see the ball in the late afternoon yesterday - posing a bit of an occupational hazard for those trying to hit and catch for a living.
"You can't even see the ball. You see like a black dot coming at you," said Nationals third baseman Vinny Castilla, who was hitless in four at-bats in Washington's 3-0 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies.
"You don't see the spin of the ball, nothing," Castilla said. "It was very tough to hit; the whole game was like that."
It wasn't a sunny day at the beach for fielders, either.
"I played like three-quarters of the game with my glove in the air," said Nationals center fielder Ryan Church. "And I had no clue."
The benefactors of the lighting contrast were starting pitchers Brett Myers and Esteban Loaiza, who carried one-hitters into the fifth and shutouts late into the game.
In the top of the ninth, with the sun sinking behind RFK's upper deck minutes before 7 p.m., Philadelphia's Jimmy Rollins launched a cut fastball from Loaiza just over the right-field wall.
It was only the third hit allowed by Loaiza (0-2) and it gave the Phillies a 1-0 lead. Loaiza, who struck out 11 batters for the third time in his career, surrendered another single and then left to a standing ovation from the crowd of 27,483.
"I felt really good, especially getting ahead of the count and throwing my pitches for strikes," said Loaiza, who had thrown just 105 pitches heading into the ninth. "[But] the game's not over until the last out is made."
The Phillies added a pair of RBI singles in the inning and closer Billy Wagner pitched a perfect ninth for his fifth save.
"What a coincidence. They scored runs at 7 o'clock. That's when you [normally] get started," Nationals second baseman Jose Vidro said. "It was really bad for [hitters] out there. No excuses. I don't like to make excuses, but it was a real battle out there for us just to make contact."
The teams combined to strike out 21 times, including 12 called third strikes by umpire C.B. Bucknor, who seemed to have an inconsistent strike zone.
"On days like that, I don't think he could see the ball, either," Castilla said. "It was a very tough day to see for umpires."
Myers allowed four hits, three walks and struck out seven in seven innings. Rheal Cormier (1-1) pitched a perfect eighth.
Myers said he realized the problems the hitters were having when he stepped to the plate in the third and saw intermittent shade and light.
"That's when I decided to go right at them," he said. "because I knew how tough it would be to see. I tried to pound the strike zone. I knew how hard it was because guys were taking weird swings."
Afterward, both the game time and his team's inability to win for Loaiza visibly frustrated Nationals manager Frank Robinson.
"We're built for pitching and defense and keeping the team in the game," Robinson said. "We have to win those ballgames."
The Nationals have two other late-afternoon home games on their schedule this season: a 3:05 start on Memorial Day, May 30, against Atlanta, and a 4:35 p.m. game against San Francisco on Sept. 22.
It seems likely Robinson will want to have those changed, since he said he couldn't determine a reason for the strangely timed start.
"I don't know why, and nobody else I've talked to knows why, either," he said.
NOTES: As expected, Jim Bowden will continue as the Nationals' vice president and general manager. Major League Baseball appointed him to the interim post on Nov. 2, with the original six-month agreement running until Saturday. Since the Nationals still are without an owner, Bowden agreed to stay on for as long as necessary. ... First baseman Nick Johnson missed yesterday's game with a left leg contusion and may not play Friday. ... Robinson, 69, testified for about 20 minutes before the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Aging yesterday.