Soriano Learns On the Fly

Alfonso Soriano
Mistakes and caution have marked Alfonso Soriano's transition to left field from second base but the slugger remains potent at the plate. (Joel Richardson - The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 16, 2006

At times, when the action is slow, Alfonso Soriano turns to face the stands in left field, regardless of the park in which he is playing. Soriano flashes that broad, toothy smile and waves, toying with fans who ride him, interacting with those who love him.

"I play the game, and I have fun," Soriano said Sunday in Atlanta. "I enjoy what I do."

Enjoyment, though, has been hard to come by during Soriano's first six weeks as a left fielder, an experiment that scrapped his seven-year upbringing as a mediocre major league second baseman. The conflict that dominated the offseason of the Washington Nationals -- the team that traded for Soriano without his approval of their plan to move him from second to left -- is largely an afterthought now because Soriano hasn't complained, and because he has been productive at the plate.

But there is no question Soriano is costing the Nationals runs. That he has four errors -- tied for most in the majors for an outfielder -- and an abysmal fielding percentage of .951 tells only part of the story. Six games into a nine-game trip that continues today in Chicago against the Cubs, Soriano's adventures in left have played out awkwardly. He can now make routine fly balls look, well, routine. But on almost any other play -- a liner in the gap, a sinking drive hit in front of him, a ball shot over his head -- Soriano has struggled. Asked last weekend if he felt comfortable in left field, the answer was quick, sure, and to be expected. "No," he said.

"He has an excuse," said first base coach Davey Lopes, the staff member who works most often with Soriano. "This is his first time out there. He's not familiar with outfield play. He's going to make mistakes, there's no question about it. He's made a few. And he's done exceptionally well at times."

When Soriano finally agreed to play the outfield in March -- an agreement that came after considerable tension, including a spring training game in which the Nationals took the field for warmups with an eight-man team to emphasize what they considered to be Soriano's insubordination -- club officials preached that everyone from coaches to teammates to fans had to be patient. They hoped, and still do, that Soriano could make up for any gaffes with his bat.

But asked if he could think in such a big-picture way when a catchable ball falls at Soriano's feet, Manager Frank Robinson was equally swift with his answer: "No."

"You understand the situation," Robinson said. "You understand what it is. You take what the guy can give you."

Soriano's teammates, including the pitching staff, have been unusually patient with the novice outfielder, often patting him on the rear when he returns to the dugout following a mistake. "We have to accept he's not a normal outfielder," right fielder Jose Guillen said. "You see when he tries to charge a ball and misses some of those line drives."

Take this past week. On Friday night in Atlanta, in the seventh inning of a two-run game, Braves right fielder Jeff Francoeur hit a ball to left with the bases loaded. Soriano came in to field the grounder, on which two runs would score. But he bobbled the ball for his second error of the night, allowing Brian McCann to motor on to third.

Yet true to Soriano's acceptance of his new role, he turned around, raced after the ball, then fired it into second -- he still throws like an infielder, somewhat sidearm rather than over the top -- and nailed Francoeur there, his sixth outfield assist of the year, another total that leads the majors.

"I'm working every day," Soriano said. "I don't have any choice. I just work hard every day and try to get ready."

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