Correction to This Article
A photo caption with a July 22 Sports article misidentified a Washington Nationals catcher. The photograph showed Robert Fick, not Brian Schneider, congratulating Chad Cordero.

Nats Celebrate Stability With Comeback Win Over the Cubs

Nationals starter Pedro Astacio makes a delivery against the Cubs in the third inning.
Nationals starter Pedro Astacio makes a delivery against the Cubs in the third inning. (By Lawrence Jackson -- Associated Press)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 22, 2006

The night was supposed to feel good and, in the end, it did. Fans poured into old RFK Stadium in the early evening, shook hands with players, exchanged smiles, ate some new food, watched some new entertainment -- yes, 10-foot tall renditions of dead presidents do look rather hysterical when they're running a race -- and took in all baseball is supposed to be on a stifling summer evening.

By the end of the night, the Washington Nationals had beaten the Chicago Cubs, 7-6, a come-from-behind win that featured a game-winning two-run single from oft-injured outfielder Alex Escobar in the bottom of the eighth. More significant, they all but officially transferred ownership from Major League Baseball to the family of Bethesda real estate magnate Theodore N. Lerner, as documents were signed just as the eighth-inning rally began, and all that remains is for the money -- $450 million -- to be transferred when banks open again on Monday.

And they had welcomed an announced crowd of 35,442 into the park for what the Lerner family and new team president Stan Kasten had billed as a "grand reopening" of RFK. Players and Manager Frank Robinson began the evening by welcoming fans into the park at several gates, with no way of knowing that this symbolic gesture would begin a night on which the new owners would finally put pen to paper, closing the sale.

"It's a very significant day for this organization, this franchise and the team itself," Robinson said after the victory. "The uncertainty has been cleared away."

Not for everyone. One of those players greeting fans on their way into the park was Nationals left fielder Alfonso Soriano, the man who would later start the game-winning rally by hitting a one-out single off Cubs reliever Bobby Howry in the eighth, a hit that came when the Nationals trailed 6-4.

Soriano, whose contract expires at the end of this season, said he had "a lot of fun" talking to the fans, but he walked away with mixed feelings. Soriano understands that -- with 30 homers and 25 stolen bases -- he is the most valuable commodity on the trade market. And with the July 31 deadline looming and the Nationals working under a philosophy that dictates they build for the long term, he understands that this six-game home stand is likely his last for Washington.

"It's a little frustrating," Soriano said after he went 1 for 3 with a pair of stolen bases. "A lot of people say to me: 'Don't go. Stay.' That's hard. Especially when you know when you're in a stadium where the people love you, you know they want you to stay. That made me a little frustrated."

The reality, though, is that the Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Angels, New York Yankees, New York Mets, Chicago White Sox, Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals all sent scouts to watch two teams -- the Cubs and Nationals -- that are both out of the race and thus most likely to deal key players for prospects.

The list of teams considering making a pitch for Soriano appears to be growing. After the game, Soriano glanced up at a clubhouse TV showing an ESPN prediction that he would end up with the Minnesota Twins, a red-hot team that has two starting outfielders on the disabled list. "Minnesota?" Soriano said.

The Tigers are among the most interested, and they have assigned a scout to follow the Nationals through the trade deadline. General Manager Jim Bowden would like to keep several teams interested until the deadline, thus keeping the price high.

"I want to stay," Soriano said. "But it makes me feel good that if I [don't] stay here, a lot of other teams want me."

On the field, Soriano -- who says he has dealt with trade rumors every summer since 1999 -- says he keeps his mind clear, and when he singled to center in the eighth, he certainly seemed focused. Nationals reliever Kevin Gryboski had allowed the Cubs to take a 6-4 lead on Aramis Ramirez's second homer of the night in the seventh, and the crowd -- which had watched the Nationals go scoreless for five innings -- needed something about which to cheer.

"We put 'em to sleep," Robinson said.

After singles by Soriano and Marlon Anderson, they woke up. Soriano stole third, and Ryan Zimmerman followed with a pop fly that Cubs second baseman Todd Walker tracked down in foul territory, deep enough to score an alert Soriano.

Nick Johnson's single brought up Escobar. The former top prospect already has missed 42 games with a hamstring pull this year, but he lined a hanging slider to left, scoring Anderson to tie it and putting the Nationals ahead when Johnson scooted home all the way from first.

Escobar, though, came up lame at first, mildly straining his right hamstring.

"I play hard," Escobar said. "That's how I do it every day. And this stuff keeps happening to me."

But really, it is nothing compared with what has happened to this franchise, moving from Montreal, waiting for an owner to be named and finally, the sale. When Chad Cordero nailed down the win with a 1-2-3 ninth, the whole evening felt complete.

"It was an up-and-down game," Cordero said. "And that's basically how this franchise has been the last couple years -- up and down. To pull this win out today was great."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company