- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 6, 2006

SAN DIEGO — They run, and he throws them out. They run again, and he again throws them out. They keep running, and he keeps throwing them out.

Which begs the question: Will the National League ever stop running on Alfonso Soriano?

“They should,” Ryan Zimmerman said of his Washington Nationals teammate. “I think he’s become a very good left fielder. … They think how many assists he’s got might be a fluke or something like that, and that he’s not a left fielder. But they keep doing it, and they keep getting thrown out.”

For now, opponents are showing no signs of giving up. When San Diego Padres speedster Dave Roberts was gunned down at the plate during Friday night’s 6-2 Nationals victory at Petco Park, he became merely the latest victim of baseball’s most-surprising defensive star.

Soriano now has 17 outfield assists this season — the best in the major leagues by a wide margin. The Colorado Rockies’ Brad Hawpe (13) and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ Carl Crawford (10) are the only others in the game with double digits, a fact that has even stunned the major league leader.

“I’m a little surprised, because I think they try to run on me because this is my first year playing left field,” Soriano said following Friday’s game. “But like I said before, I’m feeling more comfortable now.”

Soriano does look more at ease in his new position than ever before. It didn’t even look like he put much effort into his most recent play, casually charging Adrian Gonzalez’s fifth-inning single before unleashing a one-hop strike to the plate to nail Roberts by 15 feet.

Roberts, one of the fastest players in the game, looked mystified. The Nationals have seen that look plenty of times this season from opposing runners who never expected a former second baseman with a sidearm throwing motion to gun them down with such ease.

“I don’t think they believe it,” manager Frank Robinson said. “They hear about the assists, and they say, ‘Yeah, sure.’ They haven’t seen it. I don’t think they believe that he can throw that well. He’s got an unorthodox type of delivery, but he’s very accurate when he throws.”

Washington has given up trying to get Soriano to change that unorthodox throwing motion, one that might normally be expected from a third baseman firing the ball across the diamond, but surely not an outfielder positioned some 250 feet from the plate.

It may not look right, but who cares if it’s consistently on-target?

“Everybody [doesn’t] throw the same way from the outfield,” Robinson said. “It’s just the majority of players throw pretty similar from the outfield, the long arm motion. He has a short, little kind of infield motion, but he gets it done. He has an idea of how to throw the ball from there.”

And he has record to prove it. With Friday’s assist, Soriano is now on pace to finish the season with 25, which would break the franchise record of 24 (set by both Ellis Valentine and Warren Cromartie of the 1978 Montreal Expos).

“I never thought I was going to be a leader in the outfield in assists,” he said. “So I’m a little surprised about my defense in the outfield. But like I said, I play hard and I try hard every day to get better.”

His startling assist total aside, Soriano is far from a complete defensive outfielder. He still has occasional trouble tracking down balls in the corner or line drives hit right over his head, and an NL scout who has watched Soriano recently said he’d still advise players to run on him, as long as they remain aware of his assist total.

Nevertheless, Soriano has exceeded every expectation placed on him back when he accepted the move from second base to left field. At the time, the Nationals just hoped he wouldn’t cost them any games out there.

They had no idea he might actually win them a few more thanks to his arm.

“When we started in spring training, I told you guys it would take a year,” Robinson said. “Alfonso Soriano is not going to be looked at as an outstanding outfielder. He still has an awful lot to learn, and hopefully he will. I don’t know if he will ever be an outstanding outfielder, but there are a lot of outfielders who have had good careers in this game that weren’t considered good [defensive] outfielders.”

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