Old Reliables Lift the Nats

Alfonso Soriano swipes his 41st base of the season as the ball gets by Mets shortstop Chris Woodward and heads into center field.
Alfonso Soriano swipes his 41st base of the season as the ball gets by Mets shortstop Chris Woodward and heads into center field. (By Julie Jacobson -- Associated Press)
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 23, 2006

NEW YORK, Sept. 22 -- Take two names into consideration: Mike Piazza and Albert Pujols. In the past half century, they were the only two National League rookies to drive in 100 runs. Until now.

Consider three more names: Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez. Until this season, they embodied the ultimate combination of speed and power by becoming the only players to hit 40 homers and steal 40 bases in the same season. Now, they have been upstaged.

The two linchpins for the Washington Nationals in an otherwise dreary season dredged up those names during Friday night's 3-2 victory over the New York Mets. Rookie third baseman Ryan Zimmerman joined Piazza and Pujols when he singled in the third, driving home his 100th run of the year. And left fielder Alfonso Soriano -- already in the 40-40 club -- one-upped the other members by hitting his 40th double, thus forming a club of one, "40-40-40."

There were other key parts to the victory, including Pedro Astacio's strong 6 1/3 -inning outing in which he gave up two runs, stout relief work from Saul Rivera, Jon Rauch and Chad Cordero, and Austin Kearns's 24th homer of the year. But the crux of the evening -- and of the entire season -- was provided by Zimmerman and Soriano.

"That's kind of what the season's been wrapped around," Manager Frank Robinson said of his two stalwarts. "That's not a knock on . . . any of the other guys. But that's kind of what has kept us all on our toes all year long, and given us a lot of thrills and a lot of enjoyment watching those guys produce and come through in clutch situations and making things happen for this ballclub."

Afterward, they provided a momentary distraction from the Nationals' last-place status. Zimmerman, just out of the University of Virginia, was expected to flash his potential in his first full campaign. Yet Robinson originally stashed him at the sixth spot in the lineup so as not to put pressure on him. The manager never once divulged what kind of numbers he thought the 21-year-old might produce.

"I didn't want [the media] to measure him up against any numbers," Robinson said. "I wanted this kid to go out and play. He's gone beyond any of our expectations, I'm sure. I don't' think anybody could sit down and say they expected him to be the hitter he was this year. I'm not just talking about putting up 100 RBI. That's fine. But I'm talking about the hitter he was, hands down."

That showed Friday. In the third, after Felipe Lopez had singled home Soriano for the game's first run, Zimmerman stepped in against Mets right-hander Orlando Hernandez. On the first pitch, Lopez stole second, his 40th steal of the year. As he pursued his milestone -- which he admitted was "a great personal achievement" -- Zimmerman constantly pointed to the fact that since he was moved to third in the order, he has benefited from the speedy tandem of Soriano and Lopez hitting ahead of him.

"You can almost take one or two pitches, and they're probably going to take off," Zimmerman said. "It's a lot easier to hit with runners in scoring position. Pitchers don't want to make mistakes. They're trying to be a little more fine. That causes them to make mistakes."

So with the count 1-1, Zimmerman sent the ball the opposite way, an otherwise unremarkable single pushed through the right side of the infield. Lopez scored easily, the Nationals had a 2-0 lead, and team personnel made sure the ball was tossed safely back into the dugout, where Robinson corralled it to give to his third baseman afterward.

The consensus among Nationals afterward was that 75-80 RBI would have been a reasonable expectation for Zimmerman this year.

"But you start hitting like that, you're going to pile them up real quick," catcher Brian Schneider said. "And then you move to the three hole? If you're in the three hole, you're there for a reason."

Soriano is in his leadoff spot for a reason as well. He makes things happen. But when he came to the plate in the fifth inning, he was just 2 for 21 since he stole his 40th base of the year last Saturday. Even with what he said Friday was his best offensive season -- "I never thought I'm going to put up these numbers," he said -- being in last place wears on him.

"I try to do the best I can to [concentrate] every day, but it's very hard because we don't go nowhere," Soriano said. "We're in the last place. The last 10 games, it's hard."

It is, however, less so, because Soriano's historic season was enhanced when he ripped a pitch from Hernandez to the left field corner, and he glided easily into second, the milestone double.

Soriano didn't score in the inning, and the winning margin was provided by Kearns's solo homer leading off the sixth. Just as important was the work of Rivera, Rauch and Cordero, who allowed only an intentional walk in getting the final eight outs.

But there have long been two reasons to watch this team, and they teamed up on Friday to make it worthwhile again.

"It's been a joy to watch these guys," Robinson said.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company