Soriano's Blast Gets Nats Started

The Orioles' Corey Patterson is tagged out at home by Wiki Gonzalez in the 4th inning before 32,502 at RFK. The Nats' Alfonso Soriano hit his 15th homer.
The Orioles' Corey Patterson is tagged out at home by Wiki Gonzalez in the 4th inning before 32,502 at RFK. The Nats' Alfonso Soriano hit his 15th homer. (By Nick Wass -- Associated Press)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 21, 2006

There is no mystery about the environment at RFK Stadium. Score some runs and the fans will rise, the stands will bounce, and the Washington Nationals will take that energy and run with it. No hitting, and there will be no cheering. Just blah, no matter if the neighbors from the north, the Baltimore Orioles, are in town or not.

There are occasions, though, in every Nationals' game at RFK when the home fans might want to stop buying a hot dog or chatting with friends. Just four or five moments per game: When the new left fielder, Alfonso Soriano, steps to the plate, hold everything.

"He has a presence," right-hander John Patterson said.

Soriano's presence started something last night in the Nationals' 8-3 victory over the Orioles, one which got the crowd of 32,502 -- the largest since Opening Day -- worked up, for once. He changed the game in the top of the fifth with a two-out, two-run tying homer, his third in three games, and the Nationals poured on five more runs in their final three turns at bat against the dreadful Baltimore bullpen to even this series at one game apiece.

Soriano's line in the box score -- 1 for 3 with two walks, three RBI and two runs scored -- doesn't look as if he altered a game in which the Nationals managed 10 hits and the Orioles issued seven walks. But since the Nationals arrived here last spring, there has been no player who so deserves the attention of the home fans when he strides to the plate, regardless of the score or the situation.

"I don't think he ever backs off," Manager Frank Robinson said. "If you make a mistake where he can catch up with you, he has the ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark.

"That's what's so dangerous about him. He doesn't give in. He doesn't just try to put the bat on the ball. He wants to do some damage when he makes contact."

He is doing some damage, particularly over the last week, just as Robinson inserted him back into the leadoff spot. Before Soriano hit his homer, the Nationals were struggling to get to Baltimore right-hander Rodrigo Lopez, he of the 7.86 ERA entering the game. Trailing 3-1 in the fifth, Washington's Robert Fick managed a two-out, pinch-hit single, a knock Robinson later called "huge," for it brought up Soriano.

For much of the month of May -- a period in which the Nationals hit just .238 coming into last night -- this is what amounted to a rally for Washington, two outs with a runner on first and Soriano coming to the plate. Lopez threw a strike, and then came after Soriano again. He didn't miss it, scorching a line drive near the 380 mark in left, his 15th homer of the year. Of all Washington's hitters, he is the one who doesn't appear to let spacious RFK get into his head, for he now has eight of his homers at the old park, an average of one every 7.75 at-bats. He hits no matter where he is.

"I don't remember him hitting too many cheap ones when he played" in the American League, Orioles Manager Sam Perlozzo said. "The one he hit tonight was a line drive that kept going."

Soriano's homer tied the game at 3, and the Nationals took off from there. Lopez, who had lost six straight decisions since winning on Opening Day, came unglued in the sixth, allowing three straight singles, including a hit-and-run base hit from new Nationals center fielder Alex Escobar, called up from Class AA Harrisburg earlier in the day.

That put runners on the corners, and was followed by an indication of the fact that the two teams that meet here this weekend aren't likely to be contending for anything soon. Orioles catcher Ramon Hernandez tried to pick Ryan Zimmerman off third, and the ball skipped into left field. Zimmerman came home with the run that made it 4-3, and the Nationals scored three more times in the inning, one on a bases-loaded walk to Soriano.

So the crowd -- mostly dead the previous night, when the Nationals managed just five hits in a loss -- got up and danced.

"They haven't really had a chance to be loud all year," Zimmerman said. But they were last night, particularly when Orioles relievers Julio Manon, Chris Britton and Sendy Rleal began throwing the ball all over the place.

Washington's bullpen, meanwhile, did precisely what it is supposed to do, especially on a night when starter Tony Armas Jr. could manage just five innings in which he labored through 105 pitches. Jon Rauch worked an inning in which he allowed just an infield single. Gary Majewski threw two perfect frames. And closer Chad Cordero hit a batter in the ninth, but that was it.

Before Cordero got the final man, Jay Gibbons, to ground out, the crowd stood. There had been a few back-and-forths between the Orioles fans and the home crowd, and even a dance-off between the two mascots. But the difference in the atmosphere had to do with the Nationals winning for just the fourth time in 15 home games this season.

"Just because they're 30 minutes down the road, everybody wants it to be a rivalry," Majewski said. "We can't get into that. We've been struggling this year."

For a night, they didn't struggle, and it was Soriano who got them going. Afterward, he left the clubhouse quickly, before speaking with reporters. His mark, though, stayed behind. And the fans that show up today -- the ones who will witness who will win the first series between these two cities since 1971 -- will know exactly when to stop and focus on the action at the plate, when there's no telling what will happen.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company