- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 23, 2006

For two seasons, RFK Stadium’s cavernous dimensions have wreaked havoc on the minds of the Washington Nationals hitters.

On Friday, in a 7-3 win over the Atlanta Braves, Alfonso Soriano allayed some of his teammates’ fears. Soriano belted a career-high three home runs to become the first Nationals player to have a multi-homer game at RFK. As a team, the Nationals clubbed just 46 homers at home last season.

“I had very good contact last night and very good swings,” said Soriano, who went 4-for-5 with a double and tied a career-high with five RBI. “Since that was the case, I hit three homers last night.”

Soriano’s teammates watched as he led off the first inning with a shot to the power alley in left. Soriano opened the third with a homer into the Braves left-field bullpen that just cleared the outstretched glove of leaping left fielder Ryan Langerhans.

However, the Dominican slugger saved his best for last. With the Nationals clinging to a 4-3 lead in the eighth inning, Soriano put it away with a towering three-run blast off the mezzanine level — his second homer of the night to the left-field power alley.

Soriano became the first leadoff hitter to hit three homers in a game since the Cubs’ Brant Brown on June 18, 1998, against the Phillies.

When asked if Soriano’s home runs would change the thinking in the Nationals clubhouse regarding RFK’s deep fences, manager Frank Robinson said it would not exorcise the demons.

“About this ballpark? The dimensions? The answer is no,” Robinson said.

Over the past two games, eight home runs have been hit at RFK. Soriano, who has hit safely in a club-high eight straight games, hit his first two home runs of the night off Braves right-hander John Smoltz. Soriano joined Erubiel Durazo, Barry Bonds (twice), Ryne Sandberg, and Shawon Dunston as the only players to hit two homers in a game off Smoltz over his 18-year career.

Nationals general manager Jim Bowden took some heat for trading outfielders Brad Wilkerson, Terrmel Sledge and a minor league pitcher to the Texas Rangers for Soriano in December, especially when Soriano said he was not going to play in the Nationals outfield.

Going into last night’s game, Wilkerson was hitting .191 with 29 strikeouts in 68 at-bats. Sledge, who was subsequently traded to the San Diego Padres in the offseason, is off to an equally bad start, batting .160 in 25 at-bats.

In comparison, Soriano is batting .333 with a team-high six home runs and 12 RBI. Soriano is tied for fourth in the National League in homers and is tied for first with eight multi-hit games. Soriano and Jose Vidro entered yesterday tied for third in the NL with 24 hits apiece.

“You guys know what he can bring to the table,” outfielder Jose Guillen said. “He’s a great hitter, there’s nothing that needs to be said about him.”

Guzman is playing

Shortstop Cristian Guzman has come a long way. Though it once looked like last season’s starting shortstop was destined for season-ending shoulder surgery, he now is playing in extended spring training in Viera, Fla.

Guzman, who tore the labrum in his throwing shoulder, went 1-for-3 in an intrasquad game yesterday and reportedly looked good in the field as well. Guzman, who hit .219 last season, has vigorously rehabbed his right shoulder after tearing it early in spring training.

The Nationals are in no hurry to rush Guzman back. There is no timetable on how long he’ll stay in Viera. With shortstop Royce Clayton hitting .233, the Nationals will give Guzman as much time as he needs to regain his shoulder strength.

Negotiating with Tavares

Bowden’s legal troubles have no effect on Guillen’s contract extension because Guillen’s representatives have been strictly negotiating with Nationals team president Tony Tavares.

“It doesn’t affect me or anything because I’m not dealing with Jim, I’m dealing with Tony,” Guillen said. “[The contract] doesn’t have anything to do with it. I’m the only one right now that determines my own destination. It’s going to be up to me how I play and how great I do this year, especially when I’m coming [back] from all these injuries. The past two weeks I haven’t been dealing with Jim, my contract negotiations have been with Tony. I just hope Jim gets out of all this stuff that’s been going on because I believe he’s been doing a great job here.”

Bowden was charged with driving under the influence early Monday after he was pulled over for running a stop sign in Miami Beach, Fla.

Tavares said he won’t ratify Guillen’s contract extension until new owners are in place. Guillen is seeking a contract in the five-year range.

“I’m always involved in negotiations, albeit in the background, but Jose had indicated earlier that he did not want to negotiate during the season,” Tavares said. “We’re in a unique circumstance. We may have a new owner here real shortly and baseball would prefer [the new owner] would have some input into this negotiation. We slowed the process down just a little to see if indeed we get a new owner coming in here soon, which we think we do. Any major deal here, I’ll become involved in. Anybody coming on board here is going to want to have these players indebted to them as opposed to what might be a former regime.”

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