By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 11, 2006
DENVER, Sept. 10 -- By all the normal criteria, it was an insignificant play in a dreadful game at the conclusion of a lost weekend for the Washington Nationals. Alfonso Soriano stood on first base in the ninth inning of what became a 13-9 loss to the Colorado Rockies, ending a four-game sweep in which the Nationals likely played their worst baseball of the season. And with the count 0-1 on Felipe Lopez on an endless Sunday afternoon, Soriano took off for second.
No big deal. It is, after all, what Soriano does. "That's my game," he said. "I like to steal some base."
This one, though, was to be significant. In the fifth inning, Soriano singled and stole second, his 39th swipe of the year. Now, here in the ninth, he was set up to get his 40th. And that, as everyone in the Nationals' dugout knows, would be a milestone in an otherwise miserable season. Soriano already has 45 homers. His next stolen base would make him just the fourth man to have 40 homers and 40 steals in the same season, joining Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez.
With Lopez at the plate, Rockies first baseman Todd Helton -- who won the game with a seventh-inning grand slam -- played behind Soriano, not holding him on. So when reliever Brian Fuentes unleashed his pitch, Soriano broke. Catcher Chris Iannetta came up out of his crouch and pumped toward second base, but with a runner on third, he held on to the ball.
"That's a stolen base," first base coach Davey Lopes said.
But in this case, it was not. The play was ruled "defensive indifference," and Soriano was officially allowed to advance on a fielder's choice. It is the way such plays are normally scored in the late innings of blowouts, because the rules state that players shouldn't be credited with steals if the defense is willing to give them a base, preferring to concentrate on the batter.
Soriano shrugged it off. "They give me a base, so I take it," he said. "If it's not [a steal], I think I got plenty of chances to make 40-40."
Lopes, who stole 557 bases in his 16 major league seasons, was insistent. "They made two attempts," Lopes said. "The catcher coming up to throw, and [second baseman Kaz] Matsui covering the base. That's a stolen base no matter how you look at it."
Alas, it wasn't. Official scorer Dave Einspahr said he had no intention of reviewing the play. Soriano, who had four of the Nationals' 17 hits, will have another chance Monday in Arizona.
"I think a lot of people are waiting for me to get 40," he said. "But that's my game -- aggressive on the bases. I [do] not steal a base because I want to get 40-40."
All this, of course, is merely a means to avoid discussing the actual guts of the game, which provided, perhaps, a fitting end to the season series between these last-place clubs. The Rockies won all eight of their games against the Nationals, and they did so by a combined score of 78-41 -- or an average score of roughly 10-5. The events of this weekend -- which concluded Sunday when right-hander Pedro Astacio couldn't get out of the third inning and the Nationals trotted out seven relievers -- almost defy explanation.
"What is there to explain?" Manager Frank Robinson said. "It's very simple. When you don't play defensively well, and you don't get good pitching, you're not going to win ballgames. That's how you explain it."
Offensively, the Nationals tried to be as feisty as possible. Sunday, they came back from a 7-2 deficit with a five-run fifth, and then took an 8-7 lead on Nook Logan's two-out triple in the seventh.
But the Rockies dominated the Nationals because, it seemed, each time Washington scored, Colorado answered back. The trend infuriated Robinson. The Nationals, over the course of the series, scored in 15 innings. Ten times, the Rockies immediately followed with at least one run.
"It just takes the air out of you," Robinson said. "It takes the good feelings about what you just accomplished out of you. And it also puts you kind of back on your heels. No matter what you do, the other team's going to come back on us."
With that in mind, rookie reliever Chris Schroder took the mound for the bottom of the seventh, just after the Nationals had seized the lead. Over the weekend, Schroder had about 25 friends and family on hand from his home state of Oklahoma, and they cheered wildly when he appeared Friday and Saturday. But they left on Sunday morning, and when he came in to protect the one-run advantage, there was silence.
That didn't last long. With one out, Schroder issued a walk, then hit Iannetta. After a strikeout, he was one batter away from escaping. But he walked Matsui, loading the bases and bringing up Helton, the veteran slugger.
"You just got to try to make your pitch," Schroder said, "no matter who it is."
Schroder's pitch was a 1-0 fastball, and Helton laid into it, sending it to right for the grand slam. Garrett Atkins immediately followed with another homer, and the Nationals were crushed again.
Afterward, in the quiet of the clubhouse, Soriano sat and stared into space. His pursuit of 40-40 -- stalled for a day -- remained the lone intriguing reason to watch his team.
"I think that would be more exciting, like in a close game, when you win the game," he said. "I think it's better to wait a little bit more, when the team play better."