Monday, April 24, 2006

Was it really only a month ago Alfonso Soriano refused to take the field with the rest of the Washington Nationals? How quickly times change.

Sure enough, five weeks ago today, Frank Robinson put Soriano’s name in the lineup as his starting left fielder for an exhibition game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Only eight Nationals players, of course, took the field that night. Soriano was back in the clubhouse at Space Coast Stadium, changing into street clothes and preparing to leave by the second inning.

The drama that ensued in the next 48 hours was nothing short of Ringling Bros.-esque. ESPN couldn’t stop talking about the Soriano position-switch mess, turning the story into the second coming of Terrell Owens.

And when Soriano, amid a tidal wave of criticism from every corner of the baseball world, finally agreed to make the move two days later, few believed the story would end there.

And it didn’t. In the Nationals’ second regular-season game, Soriano failed to run out a pop-up to the catcher. Robinson immediately benched him, and everyone’s favorite soap opera — “As Alfonso Turns” — had a new chapter.

But somewhere along the way, the Soriano saga slipped back into the shadows. And today, three weeks removed from Opening Day, the only news Soriano is making is with his impressive play.

While no one’s ever going to confuse him for Andruw Jones in the outfield, he certainly hasn’t been the butcher in left everyone predicted. Club officials would still like to see him track down balls in the corner with a little more gusto, and his throwing motion still isn’t completely overhand, but he’s making strides with the glove.

More importantly, Soriano is earning his $10million salary at the plate, which is why Nationals general manager Jim Bowden traded for him in the first place.

Yes, it’s early. And yes, Soriano still strikes out a ton and doesn’t walk nearly enough. But through last night’s game, he is hitting .329 with six homers (three of them coming Friday night), 12 RBI, 12 runs scored, five stolen bases and a .620 slugging percentage.

With respect to Nick Johnson, Jose Vidro and Jose Guillen, all fine players in their own right, Soriano brings something no one else on Washington’s roster does. No one else can make the ball explode off his bat like he can. No one else can make things happen on the bases like he can.

He’s the one guy in the lineup fans make a point to stop and watch when he comes to the plate.

And aside from his brief benching in New York nearly three weeks ago, he’s been a model citizen. He’s popular with his teammates, never turns down an interview request and constantly interacts with fans (even during the game).

Is he happy playing left field? No. Is he willing to sign a long-term deal to stay in Washington? Probably not. Will he still be in a Nationals uniform come August? Don’t bet on it.

But for a guy who one month ago was baseball’s biggest pariah outside of Barry Bonds, Soriano sure has managed to win everyone over, hasn’t he?

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

submit a question, go to the Sports Page

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