Correction to This Article
A June 7 Sports article incorrectly said Washington Nationals left fielder Alfonso Soriano's error in the second inning allowed the Atlanta Braves to take a 2-0 lead. It was a 2-1 lead.

Soriano Dazzles, Baffles Nationals

The Nationals' Alfonso Soriano follows through on a two-run homer run in the fifth inning against the Braves.
The Nationals' Alfonso Soriano follows through on a two-run homer run in the fifth inning against the Braves. (By John Bazemore -- Associated Press)
By Mark Schlabach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 7, 2006

ATLANTA, June 6 -- Most plays in baseball seem to come rather easily for Washington Nationals left fielder Alfonso Soriano. The four-time all-star has one of the best swings in the majors and is among the game's fastest players. And, as Soriano has more than shown lately, he has much more power than his physical frame would suggest.

So that is why ill-fated plays like the one Soriano made in the second inning of Tuesday night's 5-3 loss to the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field are so frustrating for him and Nationals Manager Frank Robinson. Playing in the outfield this season for the first time in his career, and only reluctantly after coming in a trade from the Texas Rangers during the offseason, the converted second baseman is still adjusting to life outside the infield.

Against the Braves, Soriano let Marcus Giles's single to left roll under his glove, allowing the Braves to score two runs for a 2-0 lead. Soriano later hit a two-run homer to pull the Nationals within 4-3 in the fifth, but then they were unable to crack the Braves' bullpen in the final three innings and had their five-game winning streak ended in front of 23,497.

"I did not see the ball into the glove," Soriano said of his sixth error of the season. "I have to see the ball into the glove. It's part of what I have to learn. I have to learn a little bit more about the position. Sometimes, I think I have a chance to make the play and try to do too much."

Nationals reliever Jon Rauch would probably like to have back the fastball he threw to Andruw Jones in the eighth, too. With the Braves leading 4-3, Jones led off the inning by blasting the pitch 410 feet into the left field stands. The Braves ended their five-game losing streak when new closer Ken Ray struck out pinch hitters Marlon Anderson and Daryle Ward to end the game.

The Nationals' problems started early. Robinson thought Soriano was trying to hurry to try and throw out Ryan Langerhans, who was trying to score from second on the slow grounder. But when the baseball rolled several feet past Soriano, Langerhans scored easily and catcher Brayan Peña sprinted home from first, too. Soriano threw his right arm in the air in disgust after muffing the play.

"There's no reason to field the ball that way," Robinson said. When you do it the right way, "that's anticipating and understanding and doing it right. Just like an infielder, you've got to look it into the glove."

At least Soriano continues to do nearly everything right at the plate. He hit a home run in a 10th consecutive series, dating back to the second game of a three-game series against the Pittsburgh Pirates at RFK Stadium on May 6. According to Elias Sports Bureau, only one other player in the history of the Nationals-Expos franchise has homered in at least 10 series in a row. Outfielder Vladimir Guerrero did it in 12 straight series for the Expos from June 15 to July 23, 2001.

Soriano's two-run homer off Braves starter Horatio Ramirez in the fifth was his 22nd of the season, putting him three behind injured St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols for the National League lead.

"The pitch was down," said Ramirez, who allowed three earned runs and eight hits in eight innings to win his second game. "It wasn't where I wanted it, but it was still down. It was shin high. Not every hitter can do that. Soriano is a special hitter."

The Nationals squandered another strong outing from rookie right-handed pitcher Shawn Hill. Since being recalled from Class AAA New Orleans on May 26, Hill has pitched at least six innings in each of his two starts -- he allowed only one run and five hits in seven innings of a 3-1 loss against the Los Angeles Dodgers on May 27 -- but still doesn't have a victory.

Against the Braves, Hill allowed three earned runs and seven hits in six innings. After allowing the two early runs, Hill gave up a solo homer to Adam LaRoche and a leadoff triple to Langerhans, who scored on Peña's run-scoring single in the fourth for a 4-1 lead. But he otherwise pitched well enough to win.

"I thought Hill did a good job out there," Robinson said. "He didn't struggle with his location, but he was off his location a little bit early. He settled in and gave us a chance to win."

Hill, who grew up outside Toronto and pitched for Canada in the 2004 Summer Olympics, said he struggled throwing his off-speed pitches early in the game. It had been 10 days since his last start and only his second start in the majors since 2004. Hill, 25, missed last season after undergoing surgery on his right elbow.

"My location the whole game wasn't where I like it to be," Hill said. "I battled through it, but it wasn't a good outing by any means. I've got to make better pitches and make a better pitch selection."

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