- The Washington Times - Monday, October 2, 2006

Was it a “see -ya-later” or a final goodbye?

When Washington Nationals slugger Alfonso Soriano left yesterday’s regular season finale in the fourth inning to a standing ovation, it could have been the last game for Soriano in a Nationals’ uniform.

Soriano, who is due to become a free agent, has said he would like to remain with the team.

His agent, Diego Bentz, is expected to meet with Nationals president Stan Kasten and general manager Jim Bowden this week, but that session won’t involve preliminary contract negotiations because Soriano feels it’s too soon. The left fielder just wants to rest and clear his mind before opening talks.

“This was my last game of the season, but I’m not saying it’s my last game here in D.C.,” Soriano said. “We’re going to have to wait a couple more weeks to see what happens. I love the fans here in D.C., I love the city and we’ll see what happens.”

This season, Soriano become just the fourth player baseball history to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in a single season, joining Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez.

“As far as his approach and his willingness to play and whatever, he ranks right up there with the Eddie Murrays, the Cal Ripkens who came to the ballpark every day to play, no ifs, ands or buts,” outgoing manager Frank Robinson said. “He’s one of the best ballplayers I’ve had the privilege to manage.”

Although he finished with a .277 batting average, 46 home runs, 95 RBI and 119 runs in a career-high 159 games, Soriano said it was his defense he’s most proud of this season. The former second baseman moved to left field this season and led the majors with 22 outfield assists.

Guest first baseman

Catcher Brian Schneider made his major league debut as a first baseman in the top of the seventh inning.

With injured Nick Johnson watching the game from the dugout, Schneider switched to first when backup catcher Brandon Harper stayed in the game after pinch-running for first baseman Jose Vidro in the sixth inning.

“Every guy that came up, I didn’t want a ball hit at me,” Schneider said. “Nick has nothing to worry about.”

Johnson, who was enjoying a career year this season, broke his right leg Sept. 22 in New York in a collision with right fielder Austin Kearns. Johnson was just released from a White Plains, N.Y., hospital Saturday after a titanium rod was implanted in his right leg.

Ayala on the mend

Reliever Luis Ayala’s recovery from Tommy John surgery is progressing nicely, and he expects to be throwing in bullpen sessions by December.

Ayala, who was of baseball’s top middle relievers in 2005, blew out his right elbow pitching for Mexico in March’s inaugural World Baseball Classic and was lost for the season. With a rebuilt elbow, Ayala feels he’ll be ready for spring training in February.

“I feel pretty good right now,” Ayala said. “I’ve got a new arm.”

Of all the Nationals injuries, Ayala’s loss might have been the most devastating. In 2005, Ayala finished 8-7 with a 2.66 ERA in 71 innings.

“I’m following the trainer’s plan because they have a program for me,” Ayala said. “I feel great right now, but I don’t want to push myself.”

Extra bases

The Nationals drew 2,153,056 at RFK Stadium, an average of 26,581 and a 21 percent drop from last year’s 2.7 million. The Nationals’ total was just 83 fewer than the Baltimore Orioles (2,153,139). …

Reliever Jon Rauch moved into second place on the franchise’s single-season appearances list when he came on in the eighth inning yesterday. Rauch’s 85 appearances trail only Montreal’s Mike Marshall’s 92 in 1973.

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