- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 7, 2006

ATLANTA — The home run, a golf shot into the left-field bleachers, was classic Alfonso Soriano. Unfortunately, so was the error he committed three innings earlier.

And on a night when the Washington Nationals had little margin for error, Soriano’s second-inning defensive gaffe proved more damaging than his fifth-inning homer was uplifting.

The end result was a 5-3 loss to the Atlanta Braves before 23,497 at Turner Field and an end to the Nationals’ season-high, five-game winning streak. They’ll need to beat future Hall of Famer John Smoltz in tonight’s series finale if they want to finish an impressive 6-3 on this road trip.

“We’ll just have to come out and battle a very good pitcher tomorrow and try to win the series,” manager Frank Robinson said.

The Nationals (26-33) might have been going for the sweep had they done just a couple of more things right last night. Aside from Soriano, the starting lineup could have done more against Braves left-hander Horacio Ramirez, who threw eight strong innings. And Washington’s starter, rookie Shawn Hill, could have executed a few more pitches and wound up with his first win.

Ultimately, though, this game came down to the two plays featuring Soriano.

As much as he has exceeded expectations in left field this season, Soriano still seems to have trouble charging grounders hit right at him. So when Marcus Giles sent a hard shot through the left side of the infield with runners on first and second and two out in the second, the Nationals held their collective breath as Soriano came rushing in.

Soriano tried to scoop up the ball too far back and watched as the ball trickled through toward the fence. By the time he recovered, the Braves had scored two runs and taken the lead, capitalizing on Soriano’s sixth error of the season.

“I have to put my glove in front and see the ball into it,” Soriano said. “I tried to be too aggressive, and I think that was the problem.”

Robinson wishes his novice left fielder had been less aggressive, too. Realizing he had no chance of a play at the plate, Soriano should have made sure he picked up the ball and threw it back into the infield to prevent the trailing runner from advancing.

“There’s no reason to try to field the ball that way,” Robinson said. “That’s what that is: the anticipation and understanding of the situation. And that comes from experience. Just like an infielder, you’ve got to look the ball into the glove.”

The misplay might have thrown Hill off, because the young right-hander fell into a bit of a funk after that. Making his first appearance in 10 days after having his turn in the rotation skipped, he served up a solo homer to Adam LaRoche in the third, then gave up a leadoff triple to Ryan Langerhans (leading to another Atlanta run) in the fourth.

Hill (0-1) managed not to let things get out of hand, but he still trailed when he departed after the sixth, having given up four runs (three earned) on seven hits.

“I battled through it, but it wasn’t a good outing,” he said. “I’ve got to make better pitches and have better pitch selection and execute. I did that at times, but not enough. I should be able to limit them to less than that.”

Even so, the Nationals’ 4-3 deficit at the time of Hill’s exit was manageable. And for that, the pitcher could thank Soriano. Making up for his defensive blunder three innings before, the prodigious slugger came to bat in the fifth and golfed Ramirez’s 2-2 slider deep to left, getting two runs back for the Nationals.

It was Soriano’s 22nd homer of the season, just three fewer than injured major-league leader Albert Pujols and already approaching a Nationals record. With two more home runs, Soriano will match Jose Guillen’s team-leading 24 from the entire 2005 season. And Washington still has 103 games left on the schedule.

“I’m not thinking about that,” said Soriano, who has now homered in 10 straight series, two shy of Vladimir Guerrero’s franchise record. “I’m just playing them one day at a time. Whatever happens, happens.”

Soriano’s latest blast wasn’t enough to carry the entire Nationals’ lineup, which managed eight hits in eight innings against Ramirez (1-1) but managed to score only one other run (on Ryan Zimmerman’s two-out double in the first).

That wasn’t enough to topple the Braves, who added an insurance run in the eighth on Andruw Jones’ solo homer off reliever Jon Rauch, then turned to new closer Ken Ray to finish off the ninth and snap their own five-game losing streak.

“[Ramirez] was very aggressive,” said second baseman Jose Vidro, who went 0-for-4. “He was not messing around. He was trying to get ahead of everybody, and he did it the whole ballgame. You’ve got to give him credit.”

Notes — Pitchers Joey Eischen and Zach Day each underwent season-ending shoulder surgery yesterday. Eischen had the full thickness tear in his left rotator cuff repaired by orthopedists James Andrews and Ben Shaffer in Birmingham, Ala. Cincinnati doctor Tim Kremchek operated on Day, repairing a partial undersurface tear of his right rotator cuff. …

Utilityman Robert Fick made his first start of the season behind the plate, filling in for starting catcher Brian Schneider, who recently came back from a strained hamstring. Schneider was banged up a little after Monday’s game, but he’s expected back in the lineup tonight.

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

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