Soriano, Nats Rout Marlins

All-star left fielder Alfonso Soriano, left, and recently converted center fielder Marlon Byrd high-five after completing the Nats' third straight victory.
All-star left fielder Alfonso Soriano, left, and recently converted center fielder Marlon Byrd high-five after completing the Nats' third straight victory. (By Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 4, 2006

When Alfonso Soriano appeared in the home clubhouse at RFK Stadium on Sunday morning, he had an odd realization. The lineup card was posted, and his name wasn't on it.

"I got a little frustrated," Soriano said.

So he spent the entire day in the Washington Nationals' dugout, the first time all season he didn't play. And as he watched his teammates win, he cleansed his mind and body of the slump that has dogged him for three weeks. Finally, when he stepped to the plate last night, he swung freely. His mind, he said, was "very clear today."

That revitalization led to two home runs for Soriano, shots that sparked a 9-1 victory over the Florida Marlins, the Nationals' third win in a row. The two blasts -- a solo shot leading off the first, a two-run drive in the sixth -- gave Soriano 26 for the season, a total exceeded in the National League only by Philadelphia's Ryan Howard and St. Louis's Albert Pujols. And they further emphasized what has become a defining characteristic of these Nationals: When Soriano hits, everybody hits. When he doesn't, no one does.

"It just goes down through the lineup whenever he has a good night," Manager Frank Robinson said.

Soriano ended up with four RBI, and the Nationals were helped by a three-run homer from Jose Guillen, who might finally be coming around, as well as an encouraging outing from forgotten man Pedro Astacio. The 36-year-old right-hander, making his first regular season appearance for the Nationals after missing three months with a forearm strain, pitched five effective innings, allowing one run.

"It's good," Astacio said, "because we're winning."

The Nationals hadn't won three straight since June 7-9, back when they were actually playing good baseball. That was, too, when Soriano was sizzling, when he was gathering the majority of the votes from fans who eventually elected him as a starter in the outfield for the National League all-star team.

But beginning with a four-game series against Colorado in mid-June at RFK -- an embarrassing sweep by the Rockies -- Soriano started flailing. He swung at breaking pitches out of the strike zone. He let fastballs sail by for strikes. "He's getting himself out," Robinson said several times.

In the 18 games he played since Colorado came to town, Soriano hit .132 with more than twice as many strikeouts (23) as hits (10), and the Nationals lost 14 times. That dropped his average from .302 to .263, the lowest it had been all year. The Nationals tried to let him ride it out, tried to let him fix it himself. But by Sunday morning, after he went hitless in nine at-bats over the first two games of a series with Tampa Bay, Robinson decided to sit him. It had happened once before this season, but in that game, Soriano appeared as a pinch hitter. He had never had a full day off. He needed one.

"I know it's a good idea, because I'm a little struggling at the home plate," Soriano said. "I think the best thing happened to me [Sunday] -- not think about the game, and just relax."

He said he came to RFK more confident and calm yesterday. He watched some video, convinced himself to keep his hands behind the ball so he could drive it better, and took some deep breaths. When Marlins right-hander Ricky Nolasco unleashed his second pitch of the game, Soriano tore into it, sending it deep to left. He took a couple of steps toward first, but kept his eye on the ball. His last home run had come 55 at-bats earlier, his longest drought of the season. Somehow, it felt longer.

"When I hit the first one," Soriano said, "I say, 'That's good.' I take my big monkey off my back, so now I can go to the home plate more relaxed."

The entire Nationals team felt more relaxed because of how Astacio performed. His last outing came when he threw 30 pitches for Class AA Harrisburg last week, and he was a bit reluctant to take the mound, fearing it was too soon. But he allowed just three hits in his five innings, throwing 71 pitches by backing the Marlins off the plate, then getting them to chase balls outside.

"He's got a great mentality," catcher Brian Schneider said. "He's not afraid to throw balls inside."

He departed with a 4-1 lead for pinch hitter Damian Jackson in the fifth, and Nolasco hit Jackson with a pitch. That brought up Soriano again, and this time he sent a hanging breaking ball on the inside part of the plate on a line into the visitors' bullpen, a two-run shot to make it 6-1. Four batters later, Guillen drove a 3-0 pitch from reliever Matt Herges into the mezzanine in left, and the Nationals had their blowout.

They wouldn't have, though, without a renewed Soriano. The Nationals are in last place in the National League East, but there still might not be a player who so dictates his team's success. In the Nationals' 36 wins, Soriano has hit .357 with an .814 slugging percentage and has 18 homers and 40 RBI. In their 48 losses, he has hit .202, slugged .354 and has eight homers and 15 RBI.

Asked if he had ever seen someone who provided such a spark or a fizzle, Robinson said, "Yeah. Rickey Henderson," recalling the stolen base king who defined leadoff hitting in the 1980s.

Afterward, when Soriano dressed in the home clubhouse, he put on a flashy necklace, slipped into his loafers, just as he had during the slump. His disposition was the same as the three previous weeks. The only difference: This time, Soriano hit, and the Nationals won.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company