By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 9, 2006
There is a generations-old image of what a leadoff man should look like, how he should hit, what pitches he should take and at which ones he should swing. At various points, the Washington Nationals wanted men named Endy Chavez and Brandon Watson -- remember those names? -- to serve that function, to slap the ball the other way, to draw walks and drop bunts.
Forget about all that. Four weeks ago, Manager Frank Robinson inserted Alfonso Soriano at the top of the order with a simple statement as the backdrop. As Robinson reiterated last night, "I'm not talking about a typical leadoff hitter."
Thus, the Washington Nationals are on an atypical run. Last night, in the first of 11 straight games at RFK Stadium, Soriano did all the duties required of a leadoff man -- drawing two walks, getting hit by a pitch, stealing a base, scoring each time he reached. And then, he punctuated a 5-2 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies with what separates him from those punch-and-judy types, launching his 23rd homer in his final at-bat, the perfect welcome home for a team that now has some real momentum.
"When you're winning," Soriano said, "you feel very good."
When you're winning, you have fun. Thus, that once-unfamiliar feeling is spreading through the little clubhouse tucked underneath RFK's stands. This team -- floundering in obscurity less than three weeks ago, when it was 14 games below .500 -- has won seven of its last eight and is within five games of .500 for the first time since April 24. Soriano has helped turn around the attitude and approach of an entire clubhouse.
"Everybody feels good, and everybody comes to the ballpark with that gleam in their eye," Robinson said. "They come to the ballpark with the thought of, 'We're going to win tonight.' "
They have that not only because of Soriano, but because the starting pitching has turned things around and is capable of winning even on nights when things aren't going all that well. Rookie left-hander Mike O'Connor was the example last night, falling behind hitters early in the count as the game began. "It was not his best stuff," catcher Brian Schneider said.
Yet it didn't matter. O'Connor provided what has become a typical outing for him -- six innings, three hits, two runs, just one earned. Spectacular? No. Dominating? Certainly not. Enough to win? Absolutely.
"You look up there, and you think the way he had pitched, he'd be behind, or he'd have given up six or seven base hits," Robinson said. "But you look up in the sixth inning, and he'd given up three hits. He was effective, but it wasn't pretty."
O'Connor (3-3) has allowed three or fewer runs in each of his nine major league starts, and he has served as a surprisingly effective stabilizer for the rotation, which is without injured starters John Patterson, Ryan Drese, Zach Day and Pedro Astacio. Though he appeared awed by the whole big league experience less than two months ago -- when he was unexpectedly called up from Class AAA New Orleans -- he has remained unflappable. Twice, the Phillies tied the game last night against him, and twice he shrugged it off.
"I definitely feel more relaxed now that I've been here for a while," he said.
Maybe the entire team is more relaxed knowing that, every ninth batter, Soriano gets a turn at the plate. Though the conventional wisdom of the day is to place a player with a high on-base percentage at the top of the order, Soriano -- a free swinger -- long has felt most comfortable there, despite the fact that he entered this season with an on-base percentage of .320 and no fewer than 121 strikeouts in any of his five full seasons in the majors.
So with the team struggling and Soriano not producing, Robinson stuck Soriano at the top of the order on May 12 and pledged to keep him there for the rest of the season. In the 26 games since, the results have been staggering -- a .366 batting average, .439 on-base percentage and .812 slugging percentage, with 13 homers, 26 RBI and 28 runs scored.
"You better appreciate it, because you don't see it every day," Robinson said. "He's on a real good run. He's on a tear."
Last night, he almost lulled the Phillies into thinking he's a more traditional leadoff man, walking and scoring on Nick Johnson's sacrifice fly in the first, getting hit by a pitch and scoring on Royce Clayton's double in the third, and walking and stealing a base before Clayton doubled him home in the fifth. His on-base percentage for the season is .369, nearly 50 points higher than his career mark.
"Always, I'm trying to be more patient," Soriano said. "Now, I feel very comfortable. I see the ball better, and I try not to swing at bad pitches."
Soriano launched an 0-1 fastball from Phillies reliever Ryan Franklin into the visitors' bullpen in left in the seventh. He has homered in 11 consecutive series, and when he headed out to left for the top of the eighth, the fans there serenaded him, and he waved back. Typical or not, leadoff man or outright slugger, he is helping his team win games, and that is so much more fun than the alternative.
"Right now," Schneider said, "the atmosphere is totally different."