By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 22, 2006
All those patient patrons who waited out a 2-hour 18-minute rain delay last night at RFK Stadium were rewarded for their perseverance with a thrilling start to the Washington Nationals' six-game homestand.
The best beginning of all belonged to left fielder Alfonso Soriano, who had solo home runs in his first two at-bats and provided the final fabulous flourish with a three-run shot in the bottom of the eighth inning to power the home team to a 7-3 victory over the Atlanta Braves.
Soriano became the first National to hit multiple homers in one game since the team moved here in 2005. He also became the first Washington player to hit three homers in one game since Mike Epstein of the old Senators accomplished the feat in 1969. Soriano's five RBI matched his career high set last year against Tampa Bay.
"I feel great," Soriano said. "The last one I hit very good. No doubt about that one. I'm just trying to see the ball and swing at good pitches. I always felt like I was a National. I feel like I'm part of this group."
Though the Braves rallied from a three-run deficit to tie the game with three-run eighth inning, the Nationals broke that deadlock with a triple in the bottom of the eighth by Ryan Church. It was the team's first triple this season and Church scored the fourth and eventual winning run when Atlanta reliever Mike Remlinger threw a one-out wild pitch that sailed over catcher Brian McCann's head. Soriano then ended any doubt with one final swing of his potent bat on a night when he also had a long double and extended his hitting streak to eight games.
"Instant offense," Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said. "He put on a show tonight and we needed it. He was there for us. It looked like it might get away from us and we won it. This was a big lift for this club and who knows where it might take us."
Winning their fifth game in their last seven starts in front of an announced crowd of 24,597, the Nationals also got a mostly masterful pitching performance from starter John Patterson. He merely mowed down the first six hitters he faced, allowed only two hits in his first seven innings and easily overshadowing his far more accomplished pitching foe, veteran Braves starter John Smoltz. Even if all three Braves runs were charged to him and he did not get the decision. Reliever Mike Stanton got the victory, stranding a runner at third in the eighth to maintain the tie.
Along the way, Patterson, with 13 strikeouts in his last start on the road against the Florida Marlins, also struck out eight Braves, and moved into first place on the National League strikeout list with 32 in his three starts. Smoltz lasted only five innings. Patterson had the benefit of pitching against a Braves team that was decimated by injures. Three of their starting infielders were not in the lineup -- third baseman Chipper Jones (sprained knee and ankle), first baseman Edgar Renteria (strained rib cage) and shortstop Marcus Giles (sprained finger ligament) -- and the Braves clearly were not the same imposing team without them.
Still, over his first seven innings, Patterson had total control of his fastball last night, dominating the Braves with virtual impunity right from the start, when he needed only eight pitches to get through the first inning.
"I thought it was a good outing; I was happy with the way I threw the ball," Patterson said.
Soriano, who moved into the leadoff spot April 13 when rookie Brandon Watson was sent down to Class AAA New Orleans after a horrid start, had been hitting in the middle of the order earlier in the season. But before last night's game, Robinson said he likes having him in the leadoff spot.
Soriano's fourth and fifth homers, both off Smoltz, both off fastballs, made him one of only five players ever to hit two home runs off the Atlanta pitcher. His sixth homer, off Braves reliever Oscar Villareal on a 3-1 pitch he described as a fastball that sank toward him, made Soriano the first three-homer man for the franchise since Tim Wallach, an Expo, walloped three against the Braves in 1987.
The Nationals had other heroes last night, most notably rookie third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who had the defensive play of the game in the top of the third inning. With McCann at second, Braves lead off hitter Pete Orr hit a low fly ball just seemingly just out of reach of the third baseman. But ten feet deep into the outfield, Zimmerman, with his back to home plate, fully extended and made a diving catch to end the inning and save a run.
"I don't have enough quotes to describe that catch," Robinson said. "I don't think I ever saw Brooks [Robinson] make that kind of play."
Despite his good work, Patterson eventually was undone by a sloppy defensive play of his own that opened the door for the Braves in the eight.
After a one-out double by McCann, Tony Peña Jr. hit a soft roller that was fielded cleanly by first baseman Nick Johnson, who hesitated slightly before deciding to toss to Patterson. The pitcher also moved late in getting over to cover and Pena beat out Johnson's toss by the blink of an eye for his first major league hit.
"I saw a little hesitation on Nick's part," Robinson said. "I thought he could have taken it himself. I thought Patterson was in slow motion at the end of the play. You can't slow down."