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Homers propel Nats to first win

- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 6, 2006

NEW YORK -- Anyone who watched the Washington Nationals on a regular basis in 2005 came to accept a simple truth about the team: Something out of the ordinary was going to happen. Every day.

That theme is alive and well in 2006 after only two games. Washington's 9-5, 10-inning win last night over the New York Mets at bitterly cold Shea Stadium produced the following, in chronological order:

• Mets right-hander Brian Bannister carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning of his major league debut before serving up a three-run homer to Nick Johnson.

{bullet } Nationals outfielder/soap opera star Alfonso Soriano failed to run out a pop-up in front of the plate one batter later and promptly was benched by manager Frank Robinson for his lack of effort.

{Bullet} Washington rookie Ryan Zimmerman hit his first career home run, a rocket off New York closer Billy Wagner to lead off the ninth and tie the game 4-4.

• And Jose Guillen followed that up with a two-run homer in the 10th off Jorge Julio, propelling the Nationals to their first victory of the season in astonishing fashion. Add Royce Clayton's subsequent, two-run single and Damian Jackson's RBI single off Julio and Washington managed to score nine straight runs en route to an impressive comeback win.

"The guys never gave up. They kept battling and battling," said Nationals starter John Patterson, who left after four shaky innings while battling a tight right forearm. "That shows a lot of character, a lot of heart, to come out here in the freezing cold weather, down by four runs, to battle back into extra innings and win the ballgame."

Guillen's game-winning shot, which just cleared the fence in left field, might have been the deciding blow, but the night's biggest drama came in the sixth when Robinson -- who had previously gone out of his way to laud Soriano as a good teammate and a likeable personality -- unceremoniously yanked him from the game for failing to run out a pop-up.

Just as was the case on Opening Day, Soriano was front and center most of the night. He was beaned in the head by Bannister in the second, causing a momentary scare. After consultation with Robinson and Nationals trainer Tim Abraham, Soriano remained in the game. But his night was just beginning.

When Soriano came back to the plate in the sixth, the Nationals were just starting their comeback. Held hitless by Bannister through the game's first 5-1/3 innings, they came back when Jose Vidro doubled, Guillen was hit by a pitch and Johnson hit the three-run homer.

But Soriano, the next batter, popped Bannister's next pitch up in the air and then stood in the batter's box as Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca made the catch right in front of him.

An agitated Robinson immediately motioned to someone on his bench (presumably Marlon Byrd) and then pointed toward left field. The manager's message was unmistakable: Soriano was out of the game, and Byrd was going to replace him in the field.

"That's the rule," said Robinson, who added there would be no further punishment for Soriano. "They've all been told. It's been said more than one time. If you don't run the ball out, you run the risk of being taken out of the ballgame. Everybody was put on notice before the season started. I just thought that did not deserve staying in the game."

Though he said afterward he wasn't happy with his manager's decision, Soriano admitted his benching was fair because of Robinson's previous warnings.

"I was surprised a little bit because I thought it was going to be a foul ball," Soriano said. "But I'm not surprised he took me out because he said in the meeting that people who do not run, he'll take them out of the game."

Soriano's teammates defended their manager's actions.

"Hey, everybody knows how Frank is," Guillen said. "He doesn't ask you for much. Just play hard, run the bases hard. If you don't do it, you know you're going to have trouble with him."

The Mets maintained their 4-3 lead until Zimmerman, the 21-year-old third baseman, led off the ninth by crushing a 93 mph fastball from Wagner off the facing of the second deck down the left-field line at Shea.

"[Wagner] was a pretty good guy to get it against," said Zimmerman, who has become friendly with his fellow Virginia native. "To hit it off him, it just makes it more special."

The Nationals suddenly had new life, thanks to the first home run of Zimmerman's budding career. And many of the 19,557 fans who braved 44-degree temperatures to witness the meltdown booed the $43 million closer while watching the Nationals' ever-maturing rookie accomplish a first.

"Let me tell you something: He doesn't look like a rookie anymore," Guillen said. "To me, he looks like he's a veteran. I think that kid's going to put up some monster numbers this year."