By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 30, 2006; E01
LOS ANGELES, July 29 -- Washington Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden sat in the front row behind home plate Saturday afternoon at Dodger Stadium, BlackBerry in his hand, fiancée at his side, the entire baseball world spread out before him. He watched Mike O'Connor, his rookie left-hander, struggle to find the plate and allow seven runs. He watched the Los Angeles Dodgers break open a tie game with three runs in the fifth inning, lifting them to a 7-5 victory over the Nationals.
And he watched his BlackBerry, scanning messages from his own staff -- strewn about Dodger Stadium -- as well as general managers from around baseball. When Bowden left the park after the loss -- the Nationals' second straight to the Dodgers -- there were fewer than 48 hours until Monday's 4 p.m. trade deadline, and there were mixed messages about what the Nationals would do.
Alfonso Soriano, the presumed prize of this market, remained a National, driving in a run and stealing a base. Over the course of this trade season, Soriano has been linked with no fewer than 10 teams, and indications were Saturday that the Houston Astros -- perhaps the most aggressive team during the period leading up to the trade deadline -- were now squarely in the mix.
By Saturday evening, the whole affair was clearly wearing on Soriano.
"Man, I'm going to be the happiest man in the world in two days," he said, "when it's over."
But it's not over yet. Even as the Astros moved, a major league official who had knowledge of the Nationals' thinking said Saturday, "There could be a surprise" regarding Soriano. Asked to elaborate, he said Washington "could keep him." The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity surrounding trade negotiations.
Remaining a National, Soriano has said, is his fondest wish. Bowden, in turn, said this week, "We don't have to make a trade." If the Nationals keep Soriano for the rest of the season and he signs elsewhere -- he will be a free agent this offseason -- they would receive two draft picks, one in the first round and one sandwiched between the first and second rounds. If the Nationals can't land the caliber of prospects they believe he is worth in a trade they could consider the draft picks as prospects-to-be.
The Nationals and Soriano's representative, Diego Bentz, have discussed his professed desire to remain, but they haven't exchanged numbers. Nationals President Stan Kasten wouldn't say whether that position had changed Saturday, and Bentz did not return messages.
"If they have numbers, they have to talk to my agent, not to me," Soriano said. "We're waiting for the numbers."
Still, even with speculation that he could stay, Soriano is the most productive offensive player readily available on the market, and most in baseball believe a trade is pending. The Astros are a relatively late addition to the mix, and their pursuit of a major offensive force -- perhaps Soriano or Baltimore shortstop Miguel Tejada -- could be a sign that there are still clubs who will pay what, to this point, has been a prohibitive price.
The Astros have shopped struggling closer Brad Lidge (5.74 ERA, four blown saves in 27 opportunities), but have been reluctant to part with their top prospects, outfielder Hunter Pence and right-hander Jason Hirsh. Pence is hitting .299 with 24 homers for Class AA Corpus Christi. Hirsh, who is 6 feet 8, is 12-2 with a 2.03 ERA for Class AAA Round Rock. One source said late Saturday that center fielder Willie Taveras could be included in a deal.
Other franchises that have been in talks with the Nationals -- including the Los Angeles Angels, Detroit Tigers, Minnesota Twins and the Dodgers -- have similarly balked at sending top prospects to Washington, which wants pitching in return.
Amidst the swirl, those in the Nationals' clubhouse are preparing for Soriano's departure. Manager Frank Robinson believes the impact of Soriano's absence in the clubhouse could be worse than just losing his 32 homers and 26 stolen bases. He brings something else, Robinson said: Attitude.
"Who would they have to look to or watch when things don't go right or they have a bad situation?" Robinson said. "He doesn't allow guys to really feel sorry for themselves. Because [when] he comes in every day, the first thing he comes into that clubhouse [and says] is 'What's up, baby. Let's win a ballgame today.' "
That didn't happen Saturday. O'Connor gave back a 2-0 lead with a four-run first inning that featured homers from Rafael Furcal and Russell Martin. After the Nationals tied the game 4-4 with two runs in the second, O'Connor was skewered by the fateful fifth. He walked the first two men he faced, allowed a single to Andre Ethier to load the bases, and that was it. His afternoon was over.
"He was all over the place," Robinson said. "He wasn't tired. He wasn't trying to be too fine. He was just all over the place."
Travis Hughes, called up from Class AAA New Orleans on Friday, came on in relief, and he allowed a tie-breaking, two-run double to Martin. The Nationals had one more chance to even things up, scoring a run in the sixth on a bases-loaded walk to Felipe Lopez. But with the bases still plugged, rookie third baseman Ryan Zimmerman swung at a 2-0 fastball from Elmer Dessens. A single would have tied the game.
"I got the pitch I wanted," Zimmerman said. But he lofted it harmlessly to right field. The threat was over.
Thus, another day passed, putting Soriano 24 hours closer to being the happiest man in the world.
Staff writers Jorge Arangure Jr. and Dave Sheinin contributed to this report from Baltimore and Cooperstown, N.Y., respectively.