Guillen, Nats Turn On Power
Wednesday, May 10, 2006
CINCINNATI, May 9 -- It was as if they were trying to outdo each other. Ryan Zimmerman in the fourth, a drive to center field. Jose Guillen in the sixth, a shot the opposite way, to right. Matthew LeCroy, his first homer as a member of the Washington Nationals, two batters after Guillen. Guillen again in the seventh, a two-run blast to right-center that was his third home run in two games.
So by the time Alfonso Soriano came to the plate in the top of the ninth, all that remained was to put the finishing touches on a 7-1 victory over the Cincinnati Reds. Soriano did just that, driving a pitch from reliever Brian Shackleford over a large black building in straightaway center at the Great American Ball Park, a shot estimated at 492 feet, one that had the visitors' clubhouse abuzz afterward even on a night when they hit five.
"It was out of the Grand Canyon," said Manager Frank Robinson, who hit 586 himself.
Mike Stanton, a reliever in his 18th big league season, paused for a bit and ticked off three or four that he has seen as long. Second baseman Jose Vidro said former Expo Vladimir Guerrero hit one at Montreal's Olympic Stadium that might have been a few feet farther, "but not much." Rookies Zimmerman and Mike O'Connor each gave a quick "no" when asked if they had seen a more majestic bomb.
"Not many," said shortstop Royce Clayton, in his 16th major league season. "It didn't even look like he really dug in on it. Just one of those effortless, beautiful swings that he's capable of producing."
Soriano's reaction: "I made good contact."
You don't say? The drive capped the Nationals' first five-homer game since they moved to Washington, the first for the franchise since July 2000, when they were the Montreal Expos. And the whole display -- one as much the result of this hitter-friendly facility than any newfound power in the Nationals' lineup -- all but overshadowed a sterling performance from right-hander Tony Armas Jr., who threw six innings of two-hit, one-run ball in winning his third straight decision.
"I just tried to make my pitches," Armas said. "The guys, they did the rest."
Because they did, the Nationals won consecutive games for the first time since April 20-21, and they started a nine-game road trip in encouraging fashion. They slapped out 14 hits against Cincinnati lefty Brandon Claussen and four relievers. They pitched out of the one jam the Reds' lineup put them in, when Armas loaded the bases to start the seventh and Joey Eischen -- nearly bouncing a wild pitch on his first offering -- allowed a sacrifice fly, but Gary Majewski minimized the damage with his most encouraging performance in weeks.
And they got something from Guillen. When he is in Washington, the dimensions at RFK Stadium reside in his head, and he rarely escapes them. He spends time thinking about all the homers that fall short of the walls in right-center field, and his performance suffers.
But being on the road sets him free. Put him in Cincinnati, and he is supremely confident.
"This is a fun ballpark to play at," he said. His numbers back it up. Since he became a National to start the 2005 season, he has 293 at-bats at RFK, and it took him till Sunday to hit his fourth home run. Over that same period, he has played four games, and had 20 at-bats, at this park -- where the wind blows through the open stands and the ball travels out with disturbing frequency -- and has four homers. He said he is only now feeling comfortable after offseason shoulder surgery and a wrist problem slowed him in spring training.
"People don't realize what I've been going through this year," Guillen said. "I've been going through a lot of stuff. People say, 'Oh, what's wrong with him? He's not hitting well.' "
Now, he might be, and it could have an impact on the entire lineup. Everyone involved -- from Guillen to Robinson to his teammates -- said the fact that his two homers went the opposite way, to right field and to right-center, is the most encouraging sign because he's not just looking for inside pitches to pull.
"You don't really realize how important he is until he does it, and it starts a little momentum," Clayton said. "It's contagious. We've been looking for that spark. When he starts hitting the ball, it just makes the lineup up and down that much more dangerous."
Armas's presence makes the rotation at least serviceable. Livan Hernandez, who will start Wednesday, has but one win and John Patterson has been on the disabled list since last month, with a June return looking more likely. In their place, Armas (3-2) has started seven times and allowed three runs or less in six of them. Asked if he has been his most reliable starter, Robinson said, "No doubt about it."
"Tonight was very encouraging," Robinson said. "He threw with so little effort tonight."
Just as Soriano swung. The pitch looked to be a 2-1 fastball, though Soriano said afterward he didn't know quite what it was. The black building in center serves as the hitter's eye, and since the park opened in 2003, only three other men had placed a ball on top of it or cleared it altogether. Their names: St. Louis's Albert Pujols, Derek Lee of the Chicago Cubs and the Reds' Adam Dunn. Of those blasts, Soriano's was the longest, one that will be talked about in the Nationals' clubhouse the rest of the year.