By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 9, 2006
HOUSTON, April 8 -- They were the center of the controversy all spring, the newcomer who wanted to play the elder statesman's position, the statesman who needed to prove he could stave off the newcomer. All spring, when outsiders discussed the Washington Nationals, there was but one topic: What in the world would happen with Alfonso Soriano, a four-time all-star at second base? And how, in turn, would that affect Jose Vidro, the incumbent at the position and a three-time all-star himself?
General Manager Jim Bowden concocted this convoluted scheme to move Soriano to left field back in December, when he pulled off a trade with Texas. Saturday night at Minute Maid Park, though, came the first snapshot of how this was supposed to work. With the Nationals trailing 5-0, Soriano came through with the two most significant hits and Vidro delivered five RBI in an improbable 12-8 victory over dazzling right-hander Roy Oswalt and the Houston Astros.
"Hopefully, people forget," Vidro said of the drama surrounding Soriano, "and know the talent he's got."
Soriano returned the compliment. "It's very important" to have Vidro healthy, he said, "because he's a very great hitter."
Soriano and Vidro were hardly the only two Nationals to contribute to a much-needed win, one that looked certain to be a defeat. Right-hander Livan Hernandez overcame a horrendous five-run first inning to somehow will his way through the sixth, keeping the Astros within reach. Jose Guillen, out of the lineup to start the game with a swollen left forearm, came off the bench to bounce a pinch-hit single in the middle of the game-changing seventh-inning rally, then stayed in the game in right and added another single.
Marlon Byrd, making his first start of the year, had an important two-run double. Every Nationals position player had at least one hit, including Brian Schneider, who had been 0 for the season but rapped out a pair of singles.
"That just shows everybody in there that, 'Hey, we still got it,' " Byrd said. "It doesn't matter if we're down. We can battle back from anything."
The two players in the heart of the battle were Soriano, starting his fifth regular season game in left field, and Vidro, proving to himself and everyone else that he might finally be putting behind three years of knee problems. They were assisted by Hernandez, whose line -- 6 innings, 6 runs, 4 earned, 12 hits -- wasn't pretty, but whose relentlessness was.
"When I'm there," Hernandez said, "I'm fighting and fighting."
So the team followed that lead. Soriano started it. His first homer as a National came in the top of the second, a two-run shot off Oswalt that immediately answered the Astros' explosive first inning. Vidro was next, adding an RBI single in the third that cut the deficit to 5-3.
Still, this was unlikely. Oswalt had only allowed as many as five runs once in his last 29 starts. And the Astros -- with a stalwart bullpen of setup men Chad Qualls and Dan Wheeler leading to closer Brad Lidge -- hadn't blown a five-run lead since July 2001.
But the Nationals believe that their lineup is far better than the one that scored the fewest runs in the majors in 2005. They can't overcome five-run deficits every night, but "we have a better chance," Manager Frank Robinson said.
So they did. Oswalt's first start of the year resulted in eight shutout innings against Florida, but Saturday, he was gone three batters into the seventh. When Byrd doubled home two runs off Qualls, Oswalt's line was finalized, and he had yielded five runs.
Vidro came next, with a veteran move, the mark of a professional, grounding to the right side to score Guillen with the tying run from third. Two batters later, Soriano drove Qualls's 0-2 pitch to left-center field, the two-run double that broke the tie.
"He was able to be what he is," Vidro said. "A great clutch hitter. A great RBI guy."
Staked to a 9-6 lead, reliever Jon Rauch allowed a homer to Jason Lane, but Vidro got it back and more with his second homer in as many nights, a three-run shot in the eighth that all but sealed the win. In the first five games of the year, Vidro is hitting .409 with seven RBI and a .727 slugging percentage -- and Robinson still doesn't think he's all the way back.
"You haven't seen him yet," Robinson said. "Wait till he starts filling the gaps with doubles and popping home runs. But he's pretty darn close right now so far."
Vidro and Soriano, too, are pretty darn close to becoming complementary parts in the Nationals' new lineup. Vidro even complained Saturday night when Robinson pulled Soriano for a defensive replacement in the bottom of the seventh.
"Early in the season," Vidro said, "we need to give him the confidence."
At the plate, though, that isn't a problem. And overall, with more contributions like they made Saturday night, the two men at the center of the storm might move closer to calmer, better times.
"We definitely need," Vidro said, "people to forget about all the stuff that went on in spring training."