By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 28, 2006; E01
He was the first one to the edge of the field, headed to the coziness of the clubhouse. Yet before he departed, Alfonso Soriano looked up at the small throng of Washington Nationals fans surrounding the home dugout, standing and clapping. He waved his large outfielder's glove and smiled. Then, at 3:36 yesterday afternoon, he ducked out of sight.
Soriano left behind another home run that helped the Nationals win yet another game, this one a 6-5 victory over the San Francisco Giants that improbably closed out a perfect six-game homestand. The longest winning streak of what otherwise has been a miserable season directly preceded what, for the Nationals and for Soriano, is the most important date on the calendar -- Monday's non-waiver trade deadline.
Soriano, an impact player on a last-place team, is the sexiest name being shopped among baseball's playoff contenders. All he has done as the murmurs have grown into full-blown trumpeting is crush the ball, hitting .422 with five homers since the all-star break.
"It's hard, because I have tough moments earlier when we wanted to play better," Soriano said. "Now, we play better, and I'd be very sad if I have to leave."
He knows, though, that he might have to, even as he hit his 32nd home run, even as he walked twice and scored two runs. The Nationals, still with the third-worst record in the National League, are headed west for a nine-game road trip under the direction dictated by new president Stan Kasten. When they return to RFK Stadium in early August, they could have a vastly different roster, because Kasten believes in using the pieces he has on this team to try to build a franchise better suited for competing year-in, year-out in the future.
"I don't want to use the word 'coldblooded,' " Kasten said not long after Soriano led off the game with a homer. "But there is something about it in our profession. We are trying to get to a goal that is winning a world championship, and that requires making moves that are nonemotional, and so you just have to separate those emotional feelings."
Livan Hernandez, the junk-balling right-hander, is another player who, like Soriano, professes his desire to stay here. Yesterday, he had one of the better outings of his uneven season, a seven-inning, three-run performance in which he reached only 86 mph on the radar gun.
Hernandez, too, could be traded if the Nationals can find a team that will take the $7 million he is owed next season. Yet he, too, has dealt with the entire issue as Soriano has -- by trying to ignore it.
"I don't want to think about that," he said. "I'm here."
Hernandez (8-8) has now pitched effectively in five of his last six starts, and the Nationals last lost a game in which he pitched on June 20. He believes that he could be headed for a big second half, though scouts who have seen him recently -- including yesterday -- still worry about his velocity. But to Manager Frank Robinson, only one thing matters: the results.
"He could have a good second half because he's consistently throwing the ball better," Robinson said. "He's in the strike zone and he's getting people out. He's not getting us blown out in the first inning."
Rather, Hernandez got the Nationals into the seventh tied 3-3 behind Soriano's leadoff blast and a two-run shot from rookie third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who is hitting .362 with a .464 on-base percentage and a .569 slugging percentage since Robinson moved him into the third spot in the lineup. Zimmerman, then, had a key at-bat in the bottom of the seventh, part of what became the winning rally.
After Robert Fick and Soriano drew walks and moved to second and third on a groundout, Zimmerman came to the plate with two outs against Giants starter Matt Cain. Cain's mission: Entice Zimmerman to get himself out, or walk him, in which case the Giants would call on left-hander Jonathan Sanchez to pitch to the left-handed hitting Nick Johnson. Zimmerman didn't lift the bat off his shoulder, and walked on five pitches.
"I've started taking pitches that I'd probably swing at earlier in the year and hit a weak ground ball or struck out," Zimmerman said. "It's just learning."
So with the bases loaded, Johnson -- who's now hitting .305 -- lined a pitch softly into right field, a two-run single that gave the Nationals the lead for good. Austin Kearns tacked on another run with an RBI single to make it 6-3, enough to allow closer Chad Cordero to give up a two-run homer to Eliezer Alfonzo in the ninth, yet still nail down his 17th save.
Afterward, Soriano went through what has become his daily drill, answering questions about what might happen. "It's tough," he said after the mob had dispersed, "because I don't even know what's going on."
Very few people do. Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden has been mum on the specifics of the offers with which he's dealing. One official from another club said yesterday, "I'm not sure what's going to happen, and I don't know if anyone does." Detroit clearly is still interested. Beyond that, various reports have cited various levels of interest from the New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins, Los Angeles Angels and Chicago White Sox, among others.
Soriano, a free agent after the season, said that if he is traded, his chances of re-signing with Washington could grow remote.
"I have to think about it," he said, "because if I get traded, I [am] not going to be happy. I'd have to wait."
With that, he dressed in a lavender shirt and taupe suit, and when he headed out the doorway to the clubhouse, he turned around and yelled, "I'll see you, fellas," before smiling broadly. In another corner, Hernandez put on his checked shirt and gray suit. And there they went, two businessmen headed out on a business trip, uncertain of where their offices would be come Monday.