- The Washington Times - Monday, June 26, 2006

BALTIMORE — There was no shortage of contributing factors to the Washington Nationals’ 9-5 victory over the Orioles yesterday: Livan Hernandez’s strong rebound performance, Royce Clayton’s bases-clearing double, Daniel Cabrera’s wildly ineffective start for Baltimore.

But start with a play that, at the time, looked far less significant than most everything else going on at Camden Yards: Alfonso Soriano’s first sacrifice bunt in four years.

Mired in an 8-for-55 slump and hitless in the series, Soriano came to the plate in the third inning following Marlon Byrd’s leadoff double and shocked the 27,680 in attendance — and his manager — by laying down a perfect sacrifice bunt.

“He did it on his own,” Frank Robinson said, “and that made it even more impressive.”

Moments later, Cabrera uncorked the second of his four wild pitches on the afternoon, allowing Byrd to score the game’s first run. The Nationals never let up, jumping out to an 8-1 lead and cruising to their first win in six games.

“That was big,” said Byrd, who went 3-for-5 with a homer. “It surprised everybody, woke everybody up a little bit. That got everyone going. … He’s a superstar in the league. To do that, it means a lot.”

Soriano, who hadn’t successfully sacrificed since playing for the New York Yankees in 2002, shrugged off his selfless move.

“I can do that sometimes in the game, depending on the situation, depending on how I’m feeling,” he said. “Whatever I can do to help the team.”

Little did anyone know just how much Soriano would help the team with that dribbler down the third-base line. But it was exactly what the Washington lineup — which had produced 14 total runs in its previous six games — needed at that time.

“I think that picked the bench up more than anything else,” Robinson said. “That’s what it takes: doing the little things. That kind of set the tone for the day.”

Did it ever. The Nationals added another run in that inning on Nick Johnson’s two-out double and Daryle Ward’s subsequent RBI single, then added a four-run fifth to salvage one win in the weekend series and a six-game season split with the Orioles in the first-ever “Battle of the Beltways.”

Clayton was the hero of the fifth-inning rally. Cabrera (4-5) — who issued five walks, four wild pitches and hit a batter — loaded the bases with two outs. Washington’s veteran shortstop, on a bit of an upswing the last four days, belted Cabrera’s first-pitch fastball to deep right-center. By the time the Orioles got the ball back to the infield, three runners had scored. And when Marlon Anderson followed with an RBI single of his own, the Nationals were up 6-1.

“That’s what we were doing when we were winning games,” Clayton said. “We were scoring runs early, giving our pitchers run support. It paid off today.”

The beneficiary of it all was Hernandez, who responded after a horrendous start in Boston last week. Unable to make it out of the second inning at Fenway Park for only the second time in his career, Hernandez pitched six standout innings yesterday. He took the mound for the seventh having surrendered just one run on three hits before allowing the first four Baltimore batters to reach and then departed.

Up until then, it was vintage Hernandez. The Nationals had been baffled by the big right-hander’s drop in velocity in Boston, where his fastball barely topped 80 mph. Pitching coach Randy St. Claire met with him the next day and discussed ways to improve that, suggesting Hernandez use the lower half of his body more and drive off the mound.

The difference was obvious. Instead of throwing his fastball in the low 80s, Hernandez regularly hit 86 and 87 mph on the Camden Yards radar gun. And that minor adjustment made the difference.

“That’s all it is,” St. Claire said. “When he does that, there’s a bigger difference between his breaking ball and his fastball. … When he does that, he’s a very successful pitcher.”

Hernandez (6-8) might argue there was more to it than that. Such as his night-before routine, one that saw him again take in a midnight showing at the movies and then take the mound less than 12 hours later and pitch effectively.

It worked last month, when Hernandez went to see “Poseidon” before beating the Orioles at RFK Stadium. Saturday night, he caught “Waist Deep” at an undisclosed District theater and didn’t make it home until 2:45 a.m.

So might this turn into a regular routine for Hernandez?

“I’m not going to do it every time, but I’ve got to do something different,” he said. “Every time I’m struggling, I’ve got to do something different.”

Whatever it takes to break out of a slump. Hernandez goes to the movies. Soriano drops a bunt.

The Nationals will gladly take it.

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

submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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