The Power Trip Continues

By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 5, 2006

MILWAUKEE, June 4 -- He stated much less with his two home runs than with the indifference that followed. Alfonso Soriano never sauntered or pumped a fist. Heck, he hardly even smiled.

So what if he had smacked a solo home run and a grand slam to almost single-handedly lift the Washington Nationals to an 8-4 win Sunday over the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park? In the clubhouse afterward, Soriano stood by his locker and shrugged. Home runs have become commonplace for him this season, he said, and power hitting hardly excites him anyway.

"I like stealing bases better," Soriano said. "I've never seen myself as much of a home run hitter."

For his teammates and manager, Soriano's two blasts generated much more buzz. They gave the Nationals their first series sweep of the season and improved Washington's record to 4-2 on a crucial, nine-game trip that continues Monday night in Atlanta. For the first time in more than a month, the Nationals (25-32) murmured about a playoff race after the game Sunday afternoon. They haven't been this close to .500 since April 28.

After the game, the Nationals lauded their star outfielder with every superlative they could muster. Soriano's 21 home runs are second best in the majors, trailing only Albert Pujols's 25. He's hit the ball out at least once in nine consecutive series, the second-longest streak in franchise history. And his two home runs Sunday, both off fastballs, added a noteworthy chapter to the most powerful hitting stretch of Soriano's career.

The outfielder launched a 425-foot shot off Milwaukee starter Jorge De La Rosa (2-2) in the third inning to break a scoreless tie. De La Rosa left the game when Soriano came up with the bases loaded in the sixth inning, and the outfielder greeted reliever Joe Winkelsas with a 379-foot homer into the Brewers' bullpen to give the Nationals a 6-0 lead. It marked the third grand slam of his career and his second multiple-homer game of this season.

"He seems to do something great every time," Manager Frank Robinson said.

"Soriano, man, he's unbelievable," said Tony Armas Jr. (6-3), who gave up no earned runs in six innings despite mild back spasms. "You don't expect anything from him, because he's so little. But he's as good as it gets."

Only Soriano remained nonplussed by his performance. He said he had only followed the creed of any good fastball hitter: anticipate pitches and then devour them. As for his 21 home runs, which already put him more than halfway to his career high of 39? "I don't really care about that," Soriano said. His 13 steals excite him more, because he likes running better.

"I never said to myself, 'I want to have 21 home runs now,' " Soriano said. "I'm just happy if they helped the team."

On Sunday, they more than helped -- they carried the Nationals. Armas pitched effectively, but the Nationals managed only eight hits and left four runners in scoring position over the first two innings. Relievers Mike Stanton, Gary Majewski and Jon Rauch pitched sluggishly, allowing the Brewers to score one run in the seventh inning and two more in the eighth.

"I'm happy with the results, but we're still making some mistakes," Robinson said. "We can still get better."

The Brewers' incompetence, though, made the Nationals' problems appear minor. Milwaukee's losing streak extended to eight games, and it demonstrated all the symptoms of combustion Sunday. Geoff Jenkins and Prince Fielder failed to communicate on a fly ball, resulting in a collision that bruised Fielder's shoulder and sent Jenkins to the dugout with a concussion.

In the sixth inning, the Brewers generously set up Soriano's grand slam by committing two errors and walking the pitcher. Yet another error -- the eighth of the series for Milwaukee -- led to one more Washington run in the seventh. The Nationals scored a run without getting so much as a single hit in two separate innings.

The mounting frustration at Miller Park finally boiled over in the bottom of the sixth inning Sunday afternoon. After Milwaukee shortstop Bill Hall watched a called third strike sail by him, he dropped his bat on the plate and refused to pick it up before walking to the dugout. Manager Ned Yost came onto the field and earned an ejection for defending his player's temper tantrum. Many of the 21,608 in attendance launched into a steady chorus of boos that more or less continued for the rest of the game.

The Nationals packed in the visiting clubhouse afterward with an unfamiliar satisfaction: They had befuddled a team thoroughly enough to create complete disarray.

"We needed something like this," second baseman Jose Vidro said. "It definitely brings a big smile to all of our faces."

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