Nats See What They're Missing

By Thomas Boswell
Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Alfonso Soriano brings energy, excitement and optimism in his wake -- all the things the Nats' pathetic offense lacks without him. Last night, the smiling, slugging Soriano returned to RFK Stadium like a bad conscience, a lost opportunity or an old flame. Everywhere he went, lashing line-drive hits, stealing a base, generating runs in a 7-2 Cubs rout of the Nats, the $136 million man reminded his former team of what it no longer has -- the charisma, firepower and confidence of a superstar.

In his first at-bat, the Chicago left fielder, who had 46 home runs and 41 steals here last season, did not hit a home run. Instead, he actually made an out, but a distinctly Soriano type of out. His fly ball soared as high as the RFK Stadium roof and reached the warning track in front of the 410-foot sign, like a missile system fine-tuning its downrange tracking system. Never fear, Soriano will be here for three more games. What fireworks, perhaps on the Fourth of July, are still in store? Even in this sleepy Cubs win, Soriano provided foreshadowing with two line-drive singles, a stolen base and an RBI, raising his average to .305.

The current patched-together Nats have shown heart this season and began the second half of the year with the same record (33-48) that they had last season when Soriano provided the hope of nightly thrills.

"I'm not surprised," said Soriano of the Nats' respectable start. Manager Manny Acta "is a good friend of mine. I'm happy for him and for my teammates. They've played hard with a lot of injuries."

But the sight of Soriano also underlines the dreary side of the current Nationals.

Without Soriano in the lineup, others key Nats -- specifically Ryan Zimmerman, Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez -- are having dismal, demoralized seasons, unable to carry the burden of igniting or finishing rallies. The Nats are the worst offensive team in baseball; on a pace for 602 runs, they may be one of the worst in the last 25 years. When Soriano left town, the Nats cut payroll for years to come -- dollars they may someday spend for free agents. But, without Fonzie, the thrill is gone. Except when he comes back, a trail of cheerfulness behind him.

Three hours before the game, Soriano was in the Nats' locker room, seeking out old friends to tease or embrace. "When the team came to Chicago [in May], I took some of them out to dinner and they came to my [condo]," said Soriano, who is on pace for 30 homers, 46 doubles, 108 runs and 22 steals. "As soon as I got here, I went to see all my friends because we had a great time last year. Now, they have to buy me dinner."

"We went to his place to watch a [closed circuit] fight," Brian Schneider said. "It's nice."

How nice? "Very nice," said Schneider with a $136 million smile.

Few, if any, in baseball believe that the Nats should have approached the Cubs' eight-year offer for Soriano. In hindsight, the team's entire experience with Soriano was a net plus, though a small one. The Rangers got disappointing Brad Wilkerson and two marginal players. So not much was lost. The Nats never got a tempting trade offer last July and ended up with one monster season from Soriano, plus two '07 draft picks as free agent compensation. Those picks now have names: Josh Smoker and Jordan Zimmermann. Long-term, they are what the Nats got for Wilkerson, who's hitting .224 for the Rangers.

Still, the very name of Soriano hangs over the Washington offense like a dark cloud. Acta may have told a bit more of the truth than he intended when asked how the Mets, for whom he was a coach last season, viewed the '06 Nats. "Soriano was the guy we feared the most because of his power," he said. "Everything revolved around him. If we were able to keep him under control, we felt we could hold them down."

Now, without Soriano, what does it take to hold the Nats down? Apparently, almost nothing. Last night, journeyman Ted Lilly, a soft-tossing Cub lefty, took a no-hitter into the fifth inning and rocked the "heart" of the Nats' order to sleep all night.

Early in the season, the loss of injured first baseman Nick Johnson was cited as a reason for a lousy Nats attack. But replacement first baseman Dmitri Young has hit .336 at cleanup and produced roughly as much offense as Johnson. So that excuse is defunct. Ronnie Belliard (.290) and Cristian Guzman (.329), when healthy, have hit as much as departed Nats' Jose Vidro and Jose Guillen. Is it possible that the primary difference between last year's team, which scored 748 runs, and this year's version, on a pace for 602, is really just one man?

That's too extreme. But more than a trace of bitterness lingers. As Soriano batted in the first inning, dressed in Cub road grays, the polite cheers from the Nats crowd barely outnumbered a strong undercurrent of boos. Because virtually no one dislikes Soriano personally, those boos were presumably just an involuntary expression of loss.

As for Soriano, he looks back on his RFK days as nothing but profit, especially the switch to left field that he fought so intransigently last spring, then accepted after a team ultimatum.

"What I did in left field last year, that was the biggest thing for my contract," he said. "I had a great time here. The fans were great for me.

"I am surprised that I could hit so many home runs in RFK -- 24. This park is huge."

As stunning as it seems, only one Nat is on a pace for even15 home runs or 75 RBI -- Zimmerman, who has a modest 12 homers and 42 RBI. Without the example of the lean Soriano crushing balls into the upper deck, the Nats seem to have forgotten that such feats are possible. The Nats have scored five runs just once in their last 17 games and have an almost ludicrously low total of 18 runs in their last nine games.

"This second half, our offense has got to get better. Felipe Lopez isn't going to keep hitting .230. Kearns isn't going to end up with [less than] 60 RBI," Acta said. "Zimmerman isn't going to hit .240 for the whole year. It just has to get better."

The key is probably Zimmerman, the only Nat who may, someday, prove that he has Soriano-level all-around talent. Right now, he's chasing sliders low and away, taking third-strike fastballs on the belt and waving weakly at slow curveballs. Other than that, he's fine.

"Zimmerman has batted in front of one of the hottest hitters in the league for the last two months," Acta said, referring to the Nats' only all-star selection, Young. "Ryan can't complain about getting no protection. And he doesn't."

The true protection that Soriano gave may have been psychological as well as athletic. At the plate, his arrogance and ferocious swing transmitted cockiness throughout the team. How good could the rival pitcher really be if Soriano seemed certain that a 450-foot home run was imminent? Get two men on base and he was a one-swing, three-run rally waiting to happen.

Now, with three months left in their season, the Nationals stare at an incredibly long list of injuries, including another starting pitcher, Micah Bowie, who went on the disabled list yesterday. Ever since Guzman was lost for the season eight days ago, the air seems to have left the team just as losses -- 12 in 16 games -- have again begun to mount.

At such a time, the last man the Nats need to see in the opposite dugout is the player they admired the most last season. But Fonzie is back in town, reminding the Nats of what they lost and how desperately they miss his swing and swagger.

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