By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 19, 2006
PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 18 -- Ryan Zimmerman was in the dugout preparing for his first at-bat Friday night when Alfonso Soriano blasted a gargantuan home run on to the concourse in center field at Citizens Bank Park. "He's an amazing player," Zimmerman said hours later.
Soriano had barely settled back into the dugout himself when Zimmerman laid into a fastball from Philadelphia's Brett Myers, a two-run shot to left, and the Washington Nationals were rolling. "He's unbelievable," Soriano said.
All summer, there have been but two consistent reasons to watch the last-place Nationals -- Soriano and Zimmerman, Zimmerman and Soriano. Friday night, they were the main reasons the Nationals beat the Phillies, 6-4. Yes, the sometimes-shaky bullpen came through when Philadelphia chipped away at what was once a six-run lead, punctuated by Chad Cordero's 23rd save. But the highlight reel that played in the Nationals' clubhouse afterward was plain: Zimmerman drove in a career-high five runs, and Soriano again provided a spark by slapping out four hits and stealing his 30th base of the year.
So afterward, what to do but compliment each other?
"What he [does] is very special," Soriano said of the rookie third baseman. He thought back to 2001, his first full year in the majors with the New York Yankees. "I cannot play like he plays. He plays like he already has five or six years in the league."
It has become the conventional wisdom around the Nationals. Zimmerman's five-RBI night began with his 17th homer in the first, continued with a two-run double in the second, and finished with a bloop single in the fourth, all helping the Nationals shoot out to a 6-0 lead.
By the fourth inning, then, he had not only helped chase Myers -- who lasted only 3 1/3 innings and was fielding questions about his health afterward -- but he had driven in his 83rd run of the year, tying the franchise record for a rookie, set by good ol' Coco Laboy, who had 83 for the expansion Montreal Expos in 1969.
Soriano -- who has driven in 79 runs, most from the leadoff spot -- is the only National within 20 RBI of Zimmerman. The chances of that before the season?
"No way," catcher Brian Schneider said. But Zimmerman has established himself as a leading candidate for rookie of the year precisely because he drives in those runs, more than any rookie in baseball this season, on pace for 110 for the year.
"You're waiting for things to happen because he's a rookie and he's young and hasn't had experience," Schneider said. "And the guy just continues to do it day in and day out. I'm done thinking something's going to happen. I tell people every day that it's fun coming to the ballpark and seeing him. He opens your eyes every day."
As does Soriano. The old-timers among the Nationals, those that played back in Montreal in the early part of this decade, remember the combination of speed and power that right fielder Vladimir Guerrero brought to the park each day. Now, they have it again in Soriano, who tied his career high with his 39th homer, then swiped that 30th bag for the fourth 30-30 season of his career -- and there's still six weeks to go.
When Soriano stole second off Myers and catcher Mike Lieberthal in the second, the Nationals looked at each other in the dugout, nodding and saying, "That's 30." The reason they have such affection for their leadoff man and his accomplishments? Because Soriano makes them feel part of it.
"It's good, but you know, the team, we're in the last place," Soriano said. "That's more important for me. It's a good number, personal, but I'm working hard to get better in the field and make my team better."
The team has a long way to go to get better, and some of those elements were on display Friday night, even in the midst of the win. Tony Armas Jr. was handed the six-run lead, but continued to nibble, working behind hitters and departing with one out in the sixth, having allowed the Phillies to climb within 6-3. The hitters, meantime, went flat, striking out a season-high 15 times, going just 2 for 15 with runners in scoring position.
"We just don't put people away," Manager Frank Robinson said. "We don't make it easy on ourselves."
The bullpen, though, came through. Saul Rivera prevented any further damage in the Phillies' three-run sixth, then got three tough outs -- including NL home run leader Ryan Howard -- in the seventh. Jon Rauch allowed a homer for his third straight outing -- a solo shot to Lieberthal -- in the eighth, but Cordero had an uneventful save, starting this nine-game road trip in the right way.
And in the aftermath, the Nationals talked about their two bright spots in a season otherwise filled with despair. Soriano kept the base he stole as a token of his accomplishment, and then set his sights on becoming just the fourth "40-40" man in history -- joining Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez.
And Zimmerman, three lockers away, smiled as he passed the symbol of Soriano's success. Zimmerman, just 21, is the future of this franchise. Soriano is a free agent, and there's no telling whether he'll be back. For six more weeks, though, they are a combination that just might make this last-place outfit worth following.