By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 6, 2006
NEW YORK, April 5 -- They were not only out of it, there was a full-blown controversy, and it involved the man who had created so much tumult in spring training, one Alfonso Soriano, the Washington Nationals' new left fielder. In the sixth inning Wednesday night, Soriano failed to run out a popup. Thus, old-school manager Frank Robinson responded in a decidedly old-school way, benching one of his best hitters for the rest of the game.
When New York Mets closer Billy Wagner came in to shut down the Nationals in the ninth, it seemed the Soriano issue would dominate the postgame discussion. But that's when rookie third baseman Ryan Zimmerman crushed a 93-mph fastball from Wagner off the façade of the second deck in left field, a stunning, game-tying homer that propelled the Nationals to their first victory of the season, a wild 9-5 decision over the Mets in 10 innings.
So much went into all of this, not the least of which was Jose Guillen's first homer of the year, a two-run blast off former Baltimore Oriole Jorge Julio. That led to a five-run 10th in which the Nationals batted around, and Washington -- in a fashion that defined its surprising first half of a year ago -- emotionally steered at least some of the attention away from the Soriano situation with an unexpected win.
"It's always better to win," Guillen said, smiling after he hit the hanging slider from Julio. "What do you expect me to do in that situation?"
The broader question is: What can we expect from these Nationals? So much happened on Wednesday night, there are subtleties that could be overlooked.
Start with Mets rookie Brian Bannister no-hitting the Nationals through the first five innings. Then turn to the comeback from a 4-0 deficit provided by John Patterson's shaky four-inning, four-run start, a comeback that came mostly on the strength of Nick Johnson's three-run homer in the sixth. There was Zimmerman's homer, his first in the majors, one which stunned the frigid crowd of 19,557 at Shea Stadium.
"It makes it that much more special to hit it off someone like him," Zimmerman said of Wagner, who has 285 career saves.
But that wasn't all. There was the first appearance for closer Chad Cordero, who loaded the bases in the bottom of the ninth, then wiggled out of it when Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca lined out to Guillen in right. And there were six stellar innings from the Nationals' bullpen, which didn't allow a run until Felix Rodriguez balked one home in the 10th.
Yet even with all that, the issue of the night came in the sixth, when Soriano sent a high popup nearly straight up from the plate. Lo Duca tossed his mask and began pursuit of the ball, which was briefly in foul territory. But players know that popups near the plate spin back toward the field of play, and they must run, because there's no telling what could happen.
Soriano didn't. When Lo Duca eventually made the play a few steps into fair territory, he was standing in the dirt near the batter's box. And as he walked back to the dugout, Robinson gestured angrily at Soriano, and then pointed to his bench, apparently indicating a change.
Indeed, when the Nationals took the field in the bottom of the inning, trailing by just that one run, they did so without one of their most potent offensive players. Marlon Byrd replaced Soriano in left, and Robinson, a noted disciplinarian, had made his first statement of a season which is all of two games old.
"It's been said more than one time," Robinson said. "If you don't run the balls out, you run the risk of being taken out of the ballgame. Everybody's been put on notice in spring training. Everybody's been put on notice before the season started."
Soriano, who was hit in the head with a pitch in his previous at-bat, said he was frustrated but not surprised.
"I surprised myself, because I think that was going to be a foul ball," he said. "But I'm not surprised that he take me out, because I think he said in the meetings: When the people no run, then he take you out of the game. So that's not surprising."
That Soriano would subject himself to such a predicament is a bit surprising, because even as he was frustrated that the Nationals moved him from his regular position, second base, to left field after an offseason trade with Texas, he had somehow still managed to cast himself as a team player.
But when the Nationals celebrated their first victory of the season, slapping hands and backs on the field at Shea Stadium, Soriano was nowhere to be seen. Robinson, just two games in, had left his mark.
"Everybody knows how Frank is," Guillen said. "He don't ask you for much. Just play hard, run the bases hard. If you don't do it, you know you're going to have problems with him."