- The Washington Times - Friday, June 9, 2006

Perhaps one day, once the Washington Nationals have truly established themselves in this town, fans will have the foresight to plead for curtain calls from Alfonso Soriano on nights like this.

Not yet, though. When Soriano launched his 23rd homer of the season in the seventh inning — the final blow in the Nationals’ 5-2 win over the Philadelphia Phillies — he was greeted with a nice ovation from the RFK Stadium crowd of 24,669, but nothing elaborate.

This performance deserved more, though. Seriously, what else could Soriano have done to help his team’s cause?

He came to the plate four times and scored four runs. He drew two walks, was hit by a pitch, stole a base, advanced on both a wild pitch and a balk and then capped it all off with yet another towering blast into the left-field bullpen.

“Oh man, I’m enjoying it, the way I’m playing right now,” Soriano said. “The team’s winning and I’m playing good, so I’m excited.”

Savor every moment of it, Washington, because if Soriano is indeed traded sometime in the next seven weeks, it may be some time before another player of his caliber wears the home team’s uniform.

“You better appreciate it,” manager Frank Robinson said, “because you don’t see it every day.”

Come to think of it, Nationals fans should be savoring every moment of this team’s current upswing, which now includes seven wins in eight games and a 15-6 record since May 18, tops in baseball. Who knows when Washington will have a stretch like this again?

“If you ask anyone what we are our last 10 games, no one probably knows,” catcher Brian Schneider said. “We’re just going out, having fun and playing baseball. … The atmosphere is totally different.”

With 10 more games to go on this lengthy homestand, the Nationals (28-33) feel like they have a golden opportunity. They now trail the third-place Atlanta Braves by one game and are within 41/2 of the second-place Phillies.

And if they continue to get quality starting pitching like Mike O’Connor provided last night, they might just find a way to overtake their division rivals.

There’s a line of thinking in baseball that says a rookie pitcher can’t really be judged until he’s faced an opposing team twice. So in that respect, last night’s game might have represented a seminal moment for O’Connor.

Only 10 days removed from a five-inning outing against the Phillies, O’Connor didn’t have the element of surprise at his disposal this time. But neither Robinson nor pitching coach Randy St. Claire was worried about that being a problem for the young lefty.

“He doesn’t need to change anything,” St. Claire said before the game. “When you start making changes, that’s when you get into trouble. Make the hitters change.”

O’Connor seemed to heed the advice, because he didn’t look any different in this outing than he did in his previous eight. Keeping the Phillies off-balance with an assortment of pitches, he never really dazzled yet wound up allowing only two runs (one earned) and three hits over six innings.

“He seems to do what he has to do to keep the team in the ballgame and have a shot,” Robinson said. “He did that tonight. … He was effective, but he wasn’t pretty.”

O’Connor (3-3) managed to earn his first win since May 7 thanks to the run support he got from his teammates. All the production came from the top of the order, with Soriano scoring Washington’s first three runs (twice on doubles by Royce Clayton).

Soriano was all over the basepaths, even though none of his first three plate appearances constituted official at-bats. He led off the bottom of the first by drawing a walk, took second on a wild pitch by Eude Brito (0-2), took third on Jose Vidro’s single and then scored on Nick Johnson’s sacrifice fly.

Soriano was hit on the left foot by Brito in the third, and after appearing to be caught bolting off the bag too soon, was awarded second when Brito was called for a balk. That proved to be huge, because Clayton followed with a run-scoring double down the left-field line, extending his hitting streak to nine games.

The two paired up again in the fifth, with Soriano drawing a walk, stealing second and then scoring on another Clayton double to left.

“It’s great to have a leadoff guy like that,” said Clayton, who has thrived since being moved up to the No. 2 spot in the lineup. “It makes my job pretty easy: Just stand there and wait for him to get into scoring position.”

Soriano wasn’t on base when Clayton came up for his final at-bat in the seventh. He had already circled the bags after turning on an 0-1 fastball from reliever Ryan Franklin for his 23rd homer of the season, two behind the major-league lead.

It was the 11th straight series in which Soriano has homered, one shy of the franchise record.

“That’s an unbelievable statistic,” Schneider said. “Someone does that, it raises eyebrows.”

Eyebrows, yes. The curtain call, though, is still forthcoming.

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

submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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