- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 5, 2006

SAN DIEGO — Felipe Lopez was one week into his tenure as a Washington National, and things were not going particularly well.

The 26-year-old shortstop, acquired with outfielder Austin Kearns and reliever Ryan Wagner during the All-Star break, was struggling with his new team. He had just two hits in 25 at-bats, he had committed three errors in four games and didn’t exactly look at ease in his new surroundings.

“It was just a new city, new uniform, new everything,” Lopez said. “So it took me a little bit.”

Somewhere along the way, the light clicked back on, and Lopez became comfortable again. He started hitting, started stealing bases and started performing like the player the Nationals believed they were getting all along. Entering last night’s game against the San Diego Padres, Lopez was on a 19-for-45 (.422) tear, with four doubles, six RBI, 12 runs scored and six stolen bases over a 12-game span.

“I think it was just a matter of him settling in,” manager Frank Robinson said. “Because now he looks like a completely different hitter, the hitter we thought he was and he is.”

And because of it, Washington suddenly has one of the better 1-2 punches in baseball, with Lopez hitting behind Alfonso Soriano at the top of Robinson’s daily lineup.

The two have combined to steal 57 bases this season (27 by Soriano, 30 by Lopez). No other team has two players with more than 25.

“Those two guys up there put a lot of pressure on the defense, on the pitcher,” said Robinson, who noted how quickly Lopez is getting out of the box and down the first-base line. “That makes a big, big, big difference. You know those guys can go from first to third on base hits, they can score from second, they’re a threat to steal third.”

In Lopez’s case, it has certainly helped to be able to hit behind a guy like Soriano who’s in the midst of a career year, on pace to become the first player in major league history to hit 50 homers and steal 40 bases in a season.

With Soriano reaching base at a .364 clip (44 points better than his career average), Lopez frequently comes to the plate with a man on. And with Soriano distracting opposing pitchers every time he dances off first or second, Lopez is often the recipient of better pitches to hit.

“The pitchers are worried about Soriano,” Robinson said. “Sometimes they don’t focus on the hitter and they make mistakes. [Lopez] can certainly benefit from hitting behind him.”

It helps that Lopez has developed into a patient man with the bat. He didn’t used to be that way, never drawing more than 30 walks until he collected 57 last season in Cincinnati. He surpassed that mark this week and with 58 is second only to on-base machine Nick Johnson (76) on the Nationals’ roster.

Lopez said he made a conscious decision a year ago to be more patient at the plate, not so much because he wanted to draw more walks but because he wanted to hit better pitches.

“I really felt that if I saw a lot of pitches, I could get a pitch I could hit instead of being aggressive and jumping out there,” he said. “It’s just a matter of self-discipline, being disciplined at the plate, choosing my pitches and studying the pitchers.”

Lopez is signed through 2008, so he figures to be part of the Nationals’ master rebuilding plan. And if they can find a way to bring Soriano back, they might have themselves a 1-2 punch that becomes the envy of the National League.

“I hope we stay together a long time,” Lopez said.

Fifth-starter options

The Nationals are still trying to settle on a No.5 starter, a decision they’ll need to make before the last spot in the rotation comes up again Aug.12.

The club initially planned to use Mike O’Connor, but the rookie left-hander is on the disabled list with a strained elbow tendon and won’t be ready to return. Neither will fellow rookie Shawn Hill, who recently began a minor league rehabilitation stint as he attempts to return from his own elbow injury.

The choice is likely to come down to Billy Traber, who is 7-7 with a 4.05 ERA at Class AAA New Orleans, or Jason Bergmann, whom the club recently converted to a starter.

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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