Soriano Struggles With Mental Adjustment to Left

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 24, 2006

VIERA, Fla., March 23 -- He hasn't made an error. He hasn't misread a fly ball. He hasn't thrown to the wrong base. And, in reality, he hasn't been tested. But two days in, no one associated with the Washington Nationals expects Alfonso Soriano's switch to the outfield to be easy.

The first part -- getting Soriano to reluctantly agree to play left field, moving from second base -- appears over. Now, though, there is the matter of actually pulling off the switch both physically and mentally. How Soriano handles not only the idea of playing left, but the physical task of, say, going to the gap to track down a double, will go a long way toward determining what kind of season he has.

"Always, I like to be close to the hitter, and to be close to the home plate, close to the bat," Soriano said Thursday. "I hope that it is not working on my mind, being out in the left field."

Yet it will almost inevitably work on his mind, and on the minds of teammates, staff members and fans. Soriano has impeccable credentials as a teammate, drawing raves from nearly everyone who has played with him. But because the flap over this position switch played out so publicly, and because Soriano admits that he would be happier at second base, some members of the organization wonder whether he will be questioned about his effort -- regardless of how hard he is actually playing -- when he misplays a ball in left.

"I just want to make sure that when something goes wrong there, when he starts making some bad throws or something, I don't want to see people start going after him and ripping him," right fielder Jose Guillen said. "That would be bad. Everybody knows he's going to play left field, and he's just learning that position now. I think we've just got to be patient with him."

In the week the Nationals have remaining here before they head north for two more exhibitions -- one in Washington, another in Baltimore -- Soriano is scheduled to get extra work before home games. He will take fly balls off a fungo bat. He will talk with Jose Cardenal, a special assistant to Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden and a major league outfielder for 18 years. They will work on angles to balls, on positioning, on situations. A crash course that takes some players years of work in the minors will be taught in a week and a half.

"People think going over there and catching fly balls is easy," Cardenal said. "It's tough. To me, it's easier coming from the outfield to the infield and catching ground balls.

"You're talking about line drive. You're talking about fly ball, talking about the wind. You're talking about the wall behind you. You're talking about who's running. 'Where am I going to throw the ball now?' It's a lot of things, man. It's not easy to play there."

Which is particularly true in Soriano's current state of mind. As he sat at his locker Thursday morning, he admitted that the firestorm over the past few days has rattled him. After the Nationals sent only eight men to the field on Monday night -- a display meant to emphasize Soriano's apparent refusal to play left -- he was widely criticized for being selfish, for defying a direct order. He and some club officials now think that refusal was a miscommunication. Rightly or wrongly, Soriano knows how he has been portrayed.

"I'm disappointed, because I not like people to think I'm the bad guy," Soriano said. "If I'm the bad guy, it's okay that people think that. But now, I'm not a bad guy. They put me in a situation where I look like a bad guy, but everybody knows who put me in this situation."

That would be Bowden and the Nationals, the same people who must now root for Soriano to somehow make a seamless adjustment. Part of that adjustment, though, is the mere willingness to do it.

"Number one, you have to want to be there," Manager Frank Robinson said. "You have to want to do it. That's number one. And I think if you do that and you're willing to work to get better, [you will]. I think he's a good enough athlete to be able to do it in time and be a pretty good outfielder."

Which is exactly what the New York Yankees thought in the spring of 2001, when they temporarily moved Soriano to left. But that spring, second baseman Chuck Knoblauch lost the ability to make the simple throw to first base, and the Yankees moved Soriano back to the infield, flipping Knoblauch to left.

"I think he's always going to consider himself a second baseman," said New York Yankees bench coach Lee Mazzilli, who managed Soriano as a shortstop in the minors and was on the Yankees' staff when Soriano came to the majors.

In a phone interview Thursday, Mazzilli, as does virtually everyone, praised Soriano's attitude. And he also said Soriano, at 30, still has the tools the Yankees thought would make him a good outfielder.

"He's always had a strong arm," Mazzilli said. "That was one of the things we liked about him as a shortstop. He's going to have to lengthen his throws. It's a different type of throw, more overhanded. But in terms of throwing, it's a lot easier to go from the infield to the outfield than the other way around."

Thursday, Soriano fielded all three fly balls hit his way. But at times, as a pitch was delivered in the Nationals' 1-0 victory over Baltimore, he stood still and didn't appear ready. He has worries. Will the switch affect his offense, always his strong suit anyway? Will he be able to stay focused? Can he play the position?

"Sometimes, I stand in the left field like [I'm not] playing," Soriano said. "I don't know. A lot of people say that I'm going to hit much better because I don't have the pressure [of second base]. But I like that pressure, because that keeps me in the game."

He sighed. There is much to learn before April 3, when the season opens.

"I don't know," he repeated. "Hopefully, the move [to] the position [will] not affect my offense."

Staff writer Dave Sheinin contributed to this report.

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