- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 30, 2006

LOS ANGELES — Alfonso Soriano showered, dressed and walked out of the visitors clubhouse at Dodger Stadium yesterday afternoon, still a member of the Washington Nationals, still unsure whether he would continue to be two days later once baseball’s trade deadline passes.

Stay or go, Soriano sounds like a man who just wants to know.

“Man, I’m going to be the happiest man in the world when those two days are over,” he said, flashing a smile for the first time all afternoon.

The previous three hours hadn’t been particularly pleasant for Soriano or the Nationals, who lost 7-5 to the Los Angeles Dodgers in another less-than-inspiring ballgame.

Less than 24 hours removed from perhaps their ugliest loss of the season — a 13-1 trouncing Friday night — the Nationals watched as rookie Mike O’Connor surrendered a career-high seven runs in his seventh straight winless outing.

A lineup that had staked O’Connor to four early runs tried to rescue the young left-hander but couldn’t knock out an ineffective Derek Lowe before getting shut down by Los Angeles’ relief corps.

Soriano didn’t have many opportunities to make a difference. He drove in a run with a second-inning single up the middle and drew a walk in a failed sixth-inning rally, but otherwise he had little impact in the game’s outcome.

Not that his lack of production on the field prevented him from remaining at the center of the baseball world during this crucial weekend.

General manager Jim Bowden, who watched yesterday’s game from the front row of the stands directly behind the plate, continues to hold discussions with at least five teams interested in acquiring the 30-year-old: the Minnesota Twins, Detroit Tigers, Houston Astros and both the Los Angeles Angels and Dodgers.

Baseball sources said Dodgers GM Ned Colletti has re-emerged as a top suitor in the last few days, though like his brethren around the sport, he continues to balk at Bowden’s hefty demand for three top prospects in exchange for Soriano.

Bowden, who insisted last week he would not budge on his asking price, has not to date, turning these negotiations into a complicated game of “chicken.” He’ll hold out hope that someone will get desperate before tomorrow’s 4 p.m. Eastern deadline. His counterparts hold out hope that he’ll be the one who becomes desperate before then.

And if no one budges, well, there’s always a chance that Soriano still will be wearing a Nationals uniform, leading off as always when they face the San Francisco Giants tomorrow night.

“Always I think I’m going to stay,” he said yesterday.

Manager Frank Robinson, while acknowledging that Soriano is still most likely to be dealt, shudders to think what effect the left fielder’s departure might have on his fragile team.

“Believe me, those guys feed off of him,” Robinson said. “I think that’s his biggest contribution, overall, to this ballclub. … Who would they have to look to or watch when things don’t go right or they have a bad situation? He doesn’t allow guys to really feel sorry for themselves.”

O’Connor was trying his best yesterday not to get down on himself for another shaky outing: four-plus innings, seven runs, six hits, five walks (one intentional). He has given up at least five runs in each of his last four starts, going 0-3 with a 12.91 ERA in that span.

Despite taking the mound with a 2-0 lead yesterday after Nick Johnson homered in the first, O’Connor (3-7) gave it and more right back to the Dodgers. Rafael Furcal homered on O’Connor’s third pitch. Russell Martin added a homer of his own later in the inning to make it 4-2.

Still, the Nationals fought back to tie the game, and O’Connor managed to keep Los Angeles from scoring again until he fell apart in the fifth, issuing back-to-back four-pitch walks and then a single before getting yanked by Robinson.

“He was all over the place,” the manager said. “I don’t know if he has a real idea of where he wants to try to throw it.”

Reliever Travis Hughes, just promoted from Class AAA New Orleans, entered and immediately gave up a two-run double to Martin. That sealed O’Connor’s fate and raised new questions about his long-term future in Washington.

A feel-good story earlier this season, O’Connor has won only one game since May 7, and he has been skipped over in the rotation twice this month because of his ineffectiveness.

O’Connor believes he can turn things around if the Nationals show some patience with him.

“If I can just get out there and pitch on a regular routine, I feel like I’ll be able to get through this,” he said.

For now, Washington has no choice but to remain patient with O’Connor and all the other struggling players on the roster. Because, as Robinson put it: “That’s what I’ve got.”

If only he and the team knew if they’ll still have their best all-around player beyond tomorrow.

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To

submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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