- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 4, 2006

Baseball is, by all accounts, a team sport. No one player has ever been able to carry his team through an entire season, not even through one playoff series the way an NBA or NHL star might.

Alfonso Soriano is testing that theory, though. He may not be the only one responsible for the Washington Nationals’ successes and failures this year, but there sure are times when it feels like he is.

Take last night’s 9-1 victory over the Florida Marlins. Back in the lineup after his first day off this season and back in the leadoff spot for the first time since Friday, Soriano hit two home runs and drove in four to lead the Nationals to their third straight win.

There were other contributing factors to Washington’s victory before 24,943 at RFK Stadium. Pedro Astacio allowed just one run over five innings in his much-delayed season debut. And Jose Guillen hit a three-run homer in the fifth to bust this one wide open.

But in some ways, all of it can be traced back to Soriano, a player who just has a knack for making everyone else around him better. How else do you explain the immense disparity between Soriano’s stats in games the Nationals win vs. his numbers when they lose?

They have won 36 times this season, and in those games Soriano owns a .357 average, .814 slugging percentage, 18 homers and 40 RBI. In the club’s 48 losses, he’s hitting .202 with a .354 slugging percentage, eight homers and 15 RBI.

“You can’t deny it,” teammate Marlon Anderson said. “It’s just a known fact.”

Soriano’s impact — particularly out of the leadoff spot — is unmistakable. When he hits, the rest of the Nationals hit and the team wins. When he doesn’t hit, it has a trickle-down effect and usually results in losses.

The only player manager Frank Robinson could compare him to last night was Rickey Henderson, the best leadoff man in baseball history.

“That’s what the guys at the top can do for you,” Robinson said. “He’s just got the extra added thing of having home run power. … Whenever he has a good night, it just seems to go right down through the lineup.”

Soriano made an impact immediately last night, launching the second pitch he saw from Marlins starter Ricky Nolasco over the 380-foot mark in left-center for the 25th leadoff homer of his career.

“When I hit that first one, I said that’s good because I take my big monkey from my back,” said Soriano, who had been 2 for his last 33 and hadn’t homered in 13 games. “Now I can go to home plate more relaxed.”

His teammates in the Washington dugout felt the same way.

Said Anderson: “When the leadoff guy can hit a home run right off the bat in the first inning, it kind of calms everyone else down.”

So the Nationals played like a loose bunch the rest of the night. They added three runs in the second inning, the final one coming on Soriano’s sacrifice fly. Then they erupted for five more in the fifth, courtesy of Soriano and Guillen.

Soriano capped his evening with a two-run shot down the left-field line off Nolasco (6-5). A few minutes later, Guillen drilled a 3-0 fastball from reliever Matt Herges into the left-field mezzanine for a three-run homer.

“He has to throw me a strike right there,” said Guillen, who has now homered twice in three days. “As a hitter, you just got to hit that filet mignon right there.”

While Guillen was enjoying his fine dining, Astacio was making mincemeat of the Marlins lineup.

The 36-year-old right-hander had become something of an afterthought over the last three months. Signed out of desperation during spring training after a string of Washington pitchers suffered injuries, he wound up getting hurt himself on the final day of the exhibition season.

Astacio hadn’t been heard from since, taking the slow route in his recovery from a strained forearm, including five minor league rehab starts. But with rookie Shawn Hill bothered by elbow soreness, the Nationals’ rotation finally had a vacancy, so it seemed like the right time to activate Astacio off the disabled list.

Was it ever. The veteran hurler showed no signs of rust, coasting through five innings with ease. His only mistake came with two outs in the fifth, when he served up an upper-deck home run to Reggie Abercrombie.

By then, though, the Nationals were comfortably in control of the game, so no harm done. And with no real reason to press his luck, Robinson decided to pull Astacio — who could become trade bait if he can string together a few more solid starts — following the fifth. Seventy-two pitches of three-hit ball were enough on this night.

“I never have expectations for anyone coming off the disabled list,” Robinson said. “Just take what they can give me, and that will do. I was very pleasantly surprised by how sharp he was and how effective he was.”

Astacio didn’t share his manager’s feelings.

“I’m not surprised,” he said. “I had a job to do. I go in there and do my best.”

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

submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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