- The Washington Times - Monday, April 3, 2006

NEW YORK. — Alfonso Soriano was about to slide home with the potential tying run for the Washington Nationals in the eighth inning yesterday at Shea Stadium when he spotted an unfriendly object in his path.

This object was much smaller than New York Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca, who loomed large in Soriano’s path. This obstacle was made of ash, weighed perhaps 35 ounces and wasn’t supposed to be there.

It was, of course, the bat with which Nats rookie Ryan Zimmerman had just laced a double, prompting Soriano to hotfoot it around the bases like a man heading for a cup of hot coffee on a chilly, windy day at Shea.

Usually, the catcher, the umpire or the next hitter — in this case, Royce Clayton — kicks the bat somewhere else on a play at the plate. This time nobody did. So Soriano was forced to hurtle over the misplaced stick rather than sliding feet first and was called out by umpire Tim Tschida. Final score in Act I of Season II for the Nats: New York 3, Washington 2.

Actually, Soriano should have been called safe anyway. TV replays showed clearly that Lo Duca was losing control of the ball while the most controversial Nats player swiped his hand over the plate, but Tschida apparently didn’t see it jump out of the catcher’s glove. Plate umpire Rick Reed also had a generally lousy day, starting when he patted Mets pitcher Tom Glavine on the back several times as the 40-year-old left-hander walked to the mound to start the game.

Despite that strange buddy-buddy gesture, Reed played no favorites. He repeatedly missed calls on both Glavine and Nats starter Livan Hernandez, two junkball artists who dueled smartly through the early innings on a day that might have been more appropriate for a Jets game.

Speaking of football, the Nats might have won this affair if baseball allowed instant replay. Manager Frank Robinson probably would have challenged the ruling and the play at the plate overturned. As it was, Robinson refused to criticize Reed’s call, saying Soriano at first had appeared out from the dugout.

No second guess? Then how about a third guess, Frank, baby?

Clayton, a savvy guy who has been around a few baseball blocks, described the interfering bat as ” a weird thing,” which got no argument from anybody.

“Usually, the catcher will get it out of the way,” he added. “It just happened to fall in a weird place, a little up the line. I couldn’t very well run up, kick it away and then run back and tell the runner to slide, could I?”

Soriano, whose English is about on a par with his defense in left field, said he thought he had gotten his hand in before the tag by Lo Duca. But the fact that the second baseman turned left fielder, sort of, was involved in a controversial play was no surprise. And although he described his first day with the Nationals as “great,” a more impartial comment might be “so-so.”

Washington fans in the sellout crowd of 54,371 or watching on TV got to see the best and worst of Soriano in one day. He was 2-for-3 as the No. 5 hitter, set up the eighth inning threat by slashing reliever Aaron Heilman’s second pitch for a single to left and getting a good jump on Zimmerman’s two-base smash into the left field corner.

If Tschida had made the correct call at the plate, Nats fans might be still singing hosannas to Alfonso.

Defensively, of course, it was a different story. When Mets leadoff hitter Jose Reyes hit a line drive to left with runners on first and third and one out in the third, it was hard not to imagine the entire Washington dugout bowed in silent prayer. Soriano caught the ball — probably, as one skeptic noted, because it got there too quickly for him to misplay it.

Just to show he wasn’t exactly turning into a Gold Glover, Soriano then bobbled Lo Duca’s single to left that scored the Mets’ first run, though that ultimately did no damage. And when Xavier Nady doubled into the corner to deliver another run in the fourth, Soriano retrieved and threw in the ball with all the dispatch of a man driving to his dentist for a root canal.

It may be quite a while before the Nats’ unwilling newcomer looks like a major league outfielder. But it could be worse, folks. He could still be botching plays at second base, his so-called natural position.

All things considered, the Nats didn’t do badly on Opening Day. They were in position to win the ballgame and could have with a few clutch hits at the right time. Best of all, tomorrow is another day.

And this time, could somebody please pick up any loose bats in the vicinity of the plate?

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