ST. LOUIS -- Nationals Park has its "Sun Monster," as Bryce Harper likes to call it. Busch Stadium has its "Shadow Monster," which reared its ugly head yesterday in Game 1 of the National League Division Series and is likely to make another appearance later today in Game 2.
The effect of the late-afternoon shadows caused by the various overhangs and light standards on the grandstand was obvious during the Nationals' 3-2 victory.
It made it difficult for batters to pick up the ball coming out of the pitcher's hand. It made it tough for infielders to make clean plays on what appeared to be routine grounders. And it left outfielders alternately trying to shade their eyes from the sun, then trying to regroup once flyballs returned to darkness.
Perhaps the only moment where the conditions actually aided the Nationals was on Jayson Werth's home-run-robbing catch of Daniel Descalso's sixth inning drive to the right-field wall.
"The visuals were tough in the outfield all day," Werth said. "And at the plate, too. This is a tough place to play as the day goes on. Luckily on the ball that I caught at the wall ... I was surprised actually that I caught it, because I was just having a hard time seeing it. When I went back and looked on video my last couple steps at the wall, I went in the shade. And that allowed me to get a good bead on it and time out the jump. But up until then, I was pretty much panicking 'cause it was a ball that I was pretty unsure on."
Werth's catch helped save the day for the Nationals and gave them a chance to rally late, which they did on Tyler Moore's eighth-inning single off Mark Rzepczynski. But that catch might not have carried as much significance had the Cardinals held a bigger lead at that point, something their players felt might have been possible had they been able to see the ball better at the plate.
When the game began at 2:08 p.m. local time, the shadows hadn't quite reached home plate. But by the third inning, the batter's box was in darkness while the pitcher's mound was in bright sunshine.
Over the next several innings, the dynamic changed over and over again, with various combinations of sunshine and shadows affecting batters from both sides.
"I think the toughest thing was, it was different every single at-bat," Ryan Zimmerman said. "So you go up there, the first at-bat was OK and then you could see it starting to creep in. Right before my second at-bat, it was almost right where the catcher was, so it wasn't quite there yet. And then my third at-bat and from there on, you go through different things where it's light in the back, dark at the plate, where it's light-dark-light."
"It's hard to square the ball up when you can't see it," Cardinals left fielder Matt Holliday told reporters. "I don't know if you noticed, but both teams had a hard time squaring the ball up."
Major league players, creatures of habit if ever there were any, get used to playing games during the regular season at mostly regular times (usually the 1 p.m. hour for day games, the 7 p.m. hour for night games). Come October, though, odd starting times become the norm, with TV networks trying to stagger the starts of as many as four games a day to their national audiences.
"It's a shame, is what it is," Holliday said. "You play all year, get these opportunities, and this is the game. You play all year at 1:00 and 7:00, then you get to the most important part of the year and you're playing at weird times."
Look for more of the same today in Game 2, which is scheduled to begin at 3:37 p.m. CDT (4:37 p.m. EDT).