Tuesday, April 4, 2006

NEW YORK. — Davey Lopes is the Washington Nationals’ new first-base coach, the guru who is supposed to ignite the worst baserunning team in baseball.

He stood in the visitor’s clubhouse after yesterday’s 3-2 Opening Day loss to the New York Mets and defended two decisions that seemed to run the Nationals right out of the game.

It’s better, Lopes said, to go down in flames than to leave smoldering embers.

“Over a 162-game schedule, if you play like that, if you run like that, it will be so much more advantageous for you. It’s not even close,” he said.

And he’s right. Aggressive baserunning creates opportunities for your team and presents problems for the opposition.


Alfonso Soriano attempted to score from first base with nobody out in the eighth inning on a double by Ryan Zimmerman. Jose Vidro ended the game with a failed dash to second on a line drive to center with two outs in the ninth.

The aggression seemed more like desperation on the part of the Nationals, as if nobody believed the offense could bring either of those runs home.

Vidro’s effort seemed reckless but on further review makes some sense. There were two outs, and Billy Wagner was on the mound. The chances of him scoring from there weren’t great.

From second base, at least, a weak hit through the infield would have allowed a close play at the plate. Then, anything could happen — which, of course, was the thinking on Soriano’s run for home.

Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca dropped the ball after tagging Soriano as he slid headfirst into home plate — first-base umpire Tim Tschida missed the drop — and Soriano’s hand in any case appeared to touch the plate before the tag.

But it shouldn’t have come down to a borderline call. Soriano should have stayed at third, which woudl have left Zimmerman at second and nobody out. A sacrifice fly or a ground ball like the one hit by Royce Clayton would have scored the tying run.

It does not bode well for the season that there is so little faith in the offense that they think they can’t count on a ground ball or sacrifice fly.

One game does not a season make, but here’s what the revamped Nationals offense has done so far: 12 hits, two runs and 2-for-13 with runners in scoring position.

This wasn’t against Pedro Martinez, either. The mound was occupied by 40-year-old Tom Glavine, who is 33-41 the last three seasons.

Meet the new bats, same as the old bats?

“This is one game,” manager Frank Robinson said. “You can’t judge the moves that we made over the course of a winter or the people that are here on one ball game. I’m sure the Mets were happy to escape with this ball game today, and they probably expect more from their lineup that they have.

“We know we came up short today. Hopefully we can take advantage of 12 hits and score more runs the next time we get 12 hits — and I hope it’s not August.”

Soriano was the biggest move the Nats made over the course of the winter. He didn’t kill them in his new position of left field yesterday, and he had two hits but no RBI. He had company, though. Both Soriano and Nick Johnson struck out looking in the fifth inning with Vidro on third and Jose Guillen at second.

Guillen wanted the Nats to sign him to a long-term contract in the offseason for the kind of money received by Soriano — $10 million a year. Those big-money players don’t hit into double plays with runners on first and second, as Guillen did in the seventh inning with Brandon Watson at second and Vidro at first.

Unfair after one game? Maybe so, but this was supposed to be the new and improved Nationals offense, not the one that finished last in the National League last year with 639 runs scored. It looked neither new nor improved yesterday.

It is reasonable to be concerned about the offense because of the shaky starting pitching of the Nationals, the first rotation that could have “MRI” replace “ERA” as a statistical measure.

“We got some good at-bats, but with guys on base, we didn’t get the big hit we needed,” said Vidro, whose performance (3-for-5) was encouraging. “We played hard enough and good enough to win the game, but it didn’t happen.”

Sound familiar?

“I think this team is a lot better than the team we had last year,” he said. “We struggled offensively last year, but we have a lot better hitters on this club this year. I think we will do a better job this year offensively.”

They had better.

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