- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 21, 2006

As Alfonso Soriano circled the bases in the fifth inning, his 15th homer of the season still rattling around the left-field bullpen, something funny happened at RFK Stadium.

The stands started to bounce. The upper deck began to sway. And 32,502 fans — or, at least those not wearing orange and black — let out a roar that people in these parts hadn’t heard in quite a while.

The Nationals were on their way to an 8-3 victory over the Baltimore Orioles, and RFK was abuzz for the first time in ages.

Seriously, when was the last time the ballpark rocked like this? Not at any previous point this season while the home team was busy stinking up the joint. And not really any time late last year as Washington endured its horrific second-half side.

“We haven’t given them much to get excited about,” manager Frank Robinson said. “But they’re here. They’re ready to get behind us. But we’ve got to give them something to cheer about, to feel good about.”

So maybe this “Battle of the Beltways” thing has a chance of catching on. Sure, there were once again thousands of empty yellow seats ringed around the 500 level, but those who did show up on a gorgeous Saturday night found themselves emotionally involved in an otherwise meaningless ballgame between two sub-par teams.

“I guess it’s one of those things like when the Yankees play the Mets,” reliever Gary Majewski said. “There was quite a bit of emotion. Maybe that’s what we need to get our heads out of our butts and play like we’re capable of playing.”

The Nationals (15-28) did play good, exciting baseball for a change last night. They tried to hit-and-run. They took extra bases.

Soriano’s blast — a two-run shot off Baltimore’s Rodrigo Lopez — was the big blow, but it was made possible by Robert Fick’s two-out, pinch-hit single one batter earlier.

“If he retires Fick, it’s a whole new game, we probably go down the drain,” Robinson said. “I tell you, that was a big, big, big hit.”

And it became even bigger when Soriano followed with his third homer in as many games and fifth in his last seven. It’s gotten to the point where everyone in a Nationals uniform stops what he’s doing when Soriano grabs a bat.

“Every time he comes up, you know there’s a good chance of him doing some damage,” closer Chad Cordero said.

Soriano’s homer tied it, but the Nationals weren’t done. A pair of singles off Lopez (1-7) in the sixth, including a perfect hit-and-run by new center fielder Alex Escobar, put runners on the corners for pinch-hitter Marlon Anderson. And when Orioles catcher Ramon Hernandez errantly tried to pick Ryan Zimmerman off third, heaving the ball into left field, Zimmerman trotted home with the go-ahead run.

Anderson followed with an RBI single of his own. And moments later, nearly everyone in the house was on his or her feet as Soriano walked to the plate with the bases loaded. He worked the count full against reliever Julio Manon, then took a breaking ball outside for ball four, allowing the third run of the inning to score.

Jose Vidro’s sacrifice fly capped the big rally, put the Nationals ahead 7-3 and set the stage for their bullpen to close this one out with relative ease.

Jon Rauch (1-1) pitched a scoreless inning to earn the win, Majewski continued his recent upswing with two perfect innings and Cordero came on in the ninth to finish things off.

The solid relief work made up for a less-than-spectacular start by Tony Armas Jr., who seemed to revert back to his old self during his five labored innings of work. Coming off back-to-back road wins over the Reds and Braves, the right-hander nibbled all around the strike zone and failed to retire the side even once.

He wound up walking five (one intentional) and three of those came around to score. It didn’t help matters when Escobar threw errantly to the plate on Jay Gibbons’ third-inning single, ultimately accounting for an unearned run, but Armas accounted for most of the damage himself.

By the time the fifth ended, he had thrown a whopping 105 pitches, signaling the end of his night.

At that point, Armas was in line for the loss. Thankfully, for both he and the hometown fans, the rest of the Nationals came to the rescue and provided everyone in the park a reason to celebrate for a change.

“We finally got something going,” Zimmerman said. “But it wasn’t just that we won. It’s how we played tonight. We were running a lot, putting pressure on them. It was just an upbeat tempo. If we can keep doing that, with the lineup we have, we could rattle off a few in a row here.”

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

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