By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 18, 2006
Alfonso Soriano stood in left field, his glove stuffed against his cocked left hip, his right arm hanging limply at his side. He had just unfurled his second throw to the plate in two batters. Both times, catcher Brian Schneider received the ball. Both times, Schneider applied a tag. Both times, the runner was safe.
"If those two plays are different," Schneider said, "it'd be a totally different game."
Well, perhaps, because that would imply that had the Atlanta Braves not scored those two runs, Schneider and his Washington Nationals' teammates would have managed more than four hits, would have at least threatened to score a run in a 5-0 loss to the Braves yesterday afternoon at RFK Stadium. Alas, a career reliever named Oscar Villarreal -- forced into a spot start to help out the Braves' reeling rotation -- allowed just one hit in his five innings, the Nationals never had two men on in an inning, and they closed their 10-game homestand quietly.
But the fact that the Nationals were shut out for the sixth time this season shows only the immediate result. The two plays at the plate continue to put a spotlight on Soriano, the slugger who is now into his fifth month in left field after a career as an infielder.
"He's still young out there," Schneider said.
Yet his statistics would indicate that running on him -- even if he's learning -- is done at one's peril. The plays occurred in the fifth inning, well after Braves catcher Brian McCann gave Atlanta a 1-0 lead with a homer off Nationals right-hander Jason Bergmann in the second. Atlanta got a one-out double from Matt Diaz, a walk and then a sacrifice to put runners on second and third with two down.
That brought up Braves second baseman Marcus Giles, who jumped on Bergmann's first pitch and sent it into left field. Diaz scored easily from third, but here came Ryan Langerhans, running from second. Soriano understands: It doesn't matter that he leads the majors with 19 outfield assists. He knows the number is inflated because people challenged him early and, apparently, will continue to challenge him over the final weeks of summer.
"When I see them running, I know they want to send those guys home," Soriano said, "because like I said before, they know it's my first year in the outfield and they want to take advantage of me in left field because I don't have the experience and [they think] I don't have the arm to throw guys out at home plate."
Soriano's throw came in on one hop to Schneider, who went out in front of the plate to field it, leaving one leg exposed to the sliding Langerhans. By the time Schneider lunged back to make the tag, Langerhans was not only safe, but had rolled over Schneider's foot.
"There was a little stinging sensation," Schneider said, but he shook it off and remained in the game, the Nationals down 3-0.
The next hitter was Edgar Renteria, the Braves shortstop. He, too, sent a ball to left, one that might have been harmless -- except on the previous play, Soriano's throw home allowed Giles to move up to second base. It is, Nationals Manager Frank Robinson said, one way to tell Soriano's transition is ongoing.
"The learning curve is: Throw the ball down where the cutoff man can cut the ball off if he needs to," Robinson said, "or at least fake that he's cutting it off. . . . That's all there is to it."
Soriano said he knows what to do in theory. The execution -- especially with a chance to nail a runner -- is different.
"I think I can throw the ball on one bounce to home plate," he said. "But that's something I've got to get out of my mind and throw the ball to the cutoff man."
So in this case, one throw led to another. With Giles running from second, Soriano again charged the ball, perhaps the most significant change in his outfield play. Instead of laying back and waiting for the ball to come to him -- as he did in April and May -- he is far more aggressive, looking to make a play.
This time, Schneider got the ball in time, and again turned back to tag the sliding Giles. Giles's front leg appeared to get to the plate in time to beat the throw, but it was off the ground, never touching the plate. Schneider's tag then came in on Giles's back leg.
"He was out," Robinson said. "Schneider tagged him before he got to the plate."
Not so, said umpire Ed Rapuano, who signaled safe, giving the Braves what turned out to be an insurmountable 4-0 lead despite Robinson's significant protests.
"Soriano can throw the ball from out there, so it's a bang-bang play . . . " Giles said. "The point is, the umpire called me safe, so I was safe."
The point became that the Nationals never mustered any offense, putting only one man in scoring position all day, allowing Villarreal -- who had made only one other start in his major league career -- to improve to 9-1 on the year.
Yet for the announced crowd of 29,007 who scattered themselves about the stadium before sending the Nationals off on a nine-game road trip, those two plays in the top of the fifth said more about this season than did the loss. Soriano -- even with his infielder's sidearm motion, even with a ball that travels with a slight tail to it -- is becoming an outfielder who expects to throw men out, and when he doesn't, there is disappointment.
"I'm hoping that people test him now," Schneider said, "because he's been very accurate with it lately."