- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 1, 2006

SAN FRANCISCO — Alfonso Soriano said he just wanted to get back to playing baseball, and could you really blame him? The Washington Nationals slugger had been consumed for weeks with talk of his impending trade, but with that no longer an issue, he’s finally able to keep his focus within the lines.

If his performance last night in a 10-7 victory over the San Francisco Giants is an indication of things to come, a happy Soriano is a productive Soriano. And a productive Soriano means good news for the Nationals.

Washington’s left fielder and leadoff man for the rest of the season (and perhaps beyond) was back to his old self after a couple of off-days in Los Angeles. He went 3-for-6 with a double, two RBI and a stolen base and gunned down a crucial runner at the plate for his major league-leading 15th outfield assist.

Soriano’s efforts, combined with Austin Kearns’ three-run double in the eighth and a late escape job by the bullpen, gave the Nationals their first win in four tries on their nine-game West Coast road trip.

But it didn’t come without a price. Utilityman and backup catcher Robert Fick, already filling in for a banged-up Brian Schneider, had to leave the game with left rib cartilage separation. He’ll undergo an MRI today to determine the extent of the injury, but it appears the club will need to dip into its thin pool of minor-league catchers for some much-needed insurance behind the plate.

Fick’s injury forced Schneider (battling both a lower back strain and a banged-up right hand after getting tagged by a foul ball standing in the on-deck circle) to catch the game’s final three innings, which proved to be tense.

Despite a 10-4 lead going into the bottom of the eighth, Washington gave three runs back and watched as Barry Bonds came to the plate with two outs representing the tying run.

Manager Frank Robinson summoned closer Chad Cordero to face one of most-feared sluggers in the history of the game, then held his breath as Bonds worked the count full before sending a deep drive to right-center that was ultimately hauled in by Ryan Church at the warning track.

That long flyout represented the emotional high point of a long day for the Nationals, who took to the field with renewed enthusiasm after learning Soriano hadn’t been traded.

They wasted no time jumping out in front of the Giants, scoring a first-inning run when Felipe Lopez doubled, moved to third on a groundout and scored on a wild pitch by Noah Lowry.

As has so often been the case this season, Washington gave its early lead right back but this time responded with a five-run outburst in the fourth to take a comfortable 6-1 lead.

Kearns and Church, Robinson’s new Nos. 5 and 6 hitters, got things started with back-to-back doubles. And after the bottom of the order loaded the bases, Soriano strode to the plate with a chance to steal the show on a day that already belonged to him.

Soriano nearly did it, driving a deep shot to left-center that briefly looked like it might carry over the fence for a grand slam. But the ball died in the cold Northern California air, landed on the warning track and bounced over the wall for a two-run, ground-rule double.

A sacrifice fly by Lopez and an RBI single by Ryan Zimmerman capped the big inning and sent starter Pedro Astacio back out to the mound with a five-run cushion to work with.

A forgotten man only a month ago, the veteran right-hander has emerged as a surprisingly effective starter for the Nationals. He went into last night’s outing with two straight quality starts, and he picked up right where he left off, holding the Giants to one run over his first four innings.

Astacio, though, started to wilt as the night wore on. He gave up two runs in the fifth, and though he got Bonds to pop out to prevent further damage, he was clearly starting to falter.

Two straight hits to open the seventh (including Omar Vizquel’s second triple of the game) ended Astacio’s night, and thrust newcomer Ryan Wagner into a delicate situation: the Nationals clinging to a two-run lead, with no outs, a runner on third and Bonds waiting in the on-deck circle behind Ray Durham.

Wagner, promoted from Class AAA New Orleans earlier in the day, earned his stripes in a big way. He got Durham to tap a harmless grounder in front of the plate for the first out, then after wisely pitching around Bonds, got Steve Finley to line out to left. Vizquel decided to test Soriano’s arm and learned the hard way what so many around baseball have come to realize: This guy does more than just hit.

Soriano fired home, and Schneider applied the tag just before Vizquel touched the plate for an inning-ending double play.

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