Rare March "Sun Monster" wreaks havoc on Opening Day

Bryce Harper was the first to coin the phrase, way back on Sept. 23, 2012 when the then-rookie outfielder lost a fly ball in the sun during an afternoon game at Nationals Park.

“You can’t catch what you can’t see, you know?” Harper said that day. “Nothing you can do about it. Sun Monster got me.”

And for the last decade, anyone who has closely watched the Nationals has known to beware the Sun Monster every September. He comes out like clockwork, just as the summer humidity dissipates and the afternoon sun moves into a lower position above the upper deck at the ballpark.

In Thursday’s season opener, though, the Sun Monster made an extremely rare, late-March appearance, wreaking as much havoc on players in the field for both the Nats and Braves as perhaps it ever has.

It happened during the Nationals’ very first plate appearance of the season. Lane Thomas’ top-of-the-first popup into shallow center field appeared to make for an easy catch for either shortstop Orlando Arcia or center fielder Michael Harris II. But when Arcia called off his teammate and reached up to make the play, he recoiled in horror when he couldn’t locate the ball, which landed harmlessly on the grass for a cheap single.

Shockingly, it happened to Arcia again one inning later. Dominic Smith led off the bottom of the second with a routine popup to short, except Arcia couldn’t block out the sun and watched as that ball also fell to the ground for a cheap single.

The Sun Monster plays no favorites, though, and before long it was time for the Nationals to contend with it.

Victor Robles had to deal with it at least twice, maybe three times on the afternoon. He fought it off enough to haul in fly balls to center by Harris in the third and Matt Olson in the fifth. But he and left fielder Alex Call weren’t able to make a play on Olson’s high drive to the deepest corner of left-center in the fourth, turning a potentially catchable ball into a double.

Call, who made his debut for the Nationals last August, doesn’t have a lot of experience with the ballpark, but he was around enough last September to have an idea about the Sun Monster. And he said what he and other outfielders had to deal with Thursday was just as bad, maybe worse.

“Not to get all meteorological on you,” he said, “but this time of year, the sun is lower in the sky.”

Call explained that the high sun prevalent all summer isn’t usually a problem, because the trajectory of most fly balls stays under it. But the location of the sun Thursday was lower and was directly in the path of many fly balls, which caused plenty of trouble for outfielders from both teams.

Strangely enough, though, there were problems Thursday not only with fly balls, but with ground balls as well. Manager Davey Martinez said CJ Abrams couldn’t see the ball coming off the bat on the critical second-inning grounder to short that should’ve made for an inning-ending double play but instead turned into the first of Abrams’ three errors in the game.

Third baseman Jeimer Candelario also reported having trouble picking up the ball, so perhaps there was an unusual glare behind the plate that made life difficult for infielders as well as outfielders.

As the calendar shifts to April, the sun should begin to reside higher and higher in the sky, helping reduce the problem. But there are still several more afternoon home games on the immediate schedule, including Sunday’s 1:35 p.m. series finale against the Braves and a 1:05 p.m. matinee against the Rays on Wednesday.

The Sun Monster may not be ready to go into its summer hibernation just yet.

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