- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 3, 2007

There’s no telling how much difference Alfonso Soriano would have made as a member of the 2007 Washington Nationals, whether the dynamic star could have carried this offensively inept club or whether he would have had minimal impact.

Whatever the case, as they watched their ex-teammate return to RFK Stadium last night and help lead the Chicago Cubs to a 7-2 victory, the thought at least had to cross the Nationals‘ minds.

“I mean, he’s a great player, one of the best in the game,” Washington third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “And obviously if he’s on your team, it’s going to be an advantage. But you know, that’s the business of this game. He seems happy over there. We’ll be all right.”

Soriano is indeed happy in a Cubs uniform, and he had plenty of reason to smile after collecting two hits, driving in one run, scoring another, stealing a base and sending a drive to the warning track in center field that might have been out of most ballparks.

Greeted with a surprising mixture of cheers and boos from an RFK Stadium crowd of 24,015 that featured a sizable number of Cubs fans, Soriano looked very much like the player who dominated every facet of the game during his one season in Washington.

The 31-year-old outfielder, who signed an eight-year, $136 million contract with Chicago over the winter, would be the first to say he was simply happy to help lead his red-hot team to a convincing victory over his ice-cold former employer.

“It’s a little weird [playing back in Washington], but I try to do my job and do the best I can for my team,” Soriano said. “I feel very good, so that’s what matters.”

After a tumultuous first half to the season, the Cubs (41-40) have won nine of 10 to creep back into the National League Central race. Meanwhile, Washington (33-49) is staggering toward the All-Star break, having lost six of seven and 12 of 16.

Last night’s subpar showing was only the latest in a string of them. The Nationals saw their starting pitcher (Jason Simontacchi) get blitzed for five runs and seven hits over only three innings, then watched as their slumping offense was shut down by left-hander Ted Lilly.

A Washington lineup that has failed to score more than three runs in any of its last nine games again was helpless at the plate. The soft-tossing Lilly carried a no-hitter into the fifth inning before surrendering doubles to Brian Schneider and Nook Logan.

The Nationals had a prime opportunity to jump on Lilly (7-4) early. Logan and Ronnie Belliard drew walks to open the first inning, and Logan wound up on third base after a throwing error by first baseman Derrek Lee.

But Washington couldn’t take advantage of the situation. Zimmerman and Dmitri Young each struck out, and Austin Kearns ground into a forceout to kill the rally without a single run crossing the plate.

“It might sound like an old cliche,” manager Manny Acta said. “But we lost the ballgame in the very first inning.”

It didn’t help matters that Simontacchi (5-6) surrendered a pair of first-inning runs himself. Pushed back two days in part to rest his tired shoulder, the right-hander was in trouble from the beginning. He issued a first-inning walk to Ryan Theriot and then hit Lee in the back, setting up Aramis Ramirez’s two-run double to left.

The Cubs added another run in the second when Soriano laced a single to left to score Rob Bowen. Four straight singles highlighted a two-run third and put an abrupt end to Simontacchi’s night. It was the second time in three starts the right-hander has failed to make it through the fourth inning.

“I’ve got take care of my job,” said Simontacchi, whose ERA has risen to 6.27. “I go out there and work to take care of business. I didn’t do it tonight.”

Trailing by seven runs after only four innings, Washington’s struggling offense had almost no chance to get back into the game. A lineup that ranks last in the National League in home runs, runs scored, total bases, on-base percentage and slugging percentage added a run in the ninth inning and loaded the bases with one out, but it was far too little and far too late.

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