The Washington Nationals may have questioned whether Alfonso Soriano was worth the trouble he caused in the beginning of the season, but as they start a three-game series against the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday, there’s little doubt to his offensive value.
Soriano, acquired in the offseason to help a Nationals offense that was last in the majors in hits (1,367), runs (639), home runs (117) and batting average (.252), originally balked at playing in left field after playing second base for six of his 10 major league seasons. But after clearing the air with Nationals manager Frank Robinson, Soriano has proven to be the hitter they envisioned with a team-leading 12 homers, 25 RBIs and trailing only Jose Vidro with 45 hits.
“I love his makeup,” hitting coach Mitchell Page said of Soriano, who hit 64 homers in two seasons with the Texas Rangers prior to the trade. “He brings a lot of class. He never makes excuses. He always has a smile on his face from one at-bat to the next. He’s a real professional.”
Soriano was moved back into the leadoff spot against the Atlanta Braves over the weekend after hitting third in nine of the previous 10 games and went 6-for-14 (.429) with two home runs and five RBIs against the Braves.
The left fielder is batting .346 at the top of the order as opposed to .186 when he bats third.
“I feel comfortable at home plate, not just against Atlanta,” Soriano said. “I have a very good swing right now.”
The Nationals (13-25) avoided their fifth straight loss and avoided a sweep Sunday against the Braves with a 8-1 win. Tony Armas struck out six in seven scoreless innings as the Nationals had their best offensive game since totaling 10 runs and 15 hits in an April 18 win at Philadelphia.
The Nationals hope Livan Hernandez (1-4, 6.52 ERA) can find some consistency at the expense of the struggling Cubs (15-22). Hernandez is looking for his first win since April 8 and trying to overcome early-game struggles that have seen him yield 19 first-inning runs.
“I gotta do something different,” Hernandez said. “Trust me, I’m going to be better. I know. Something good is coming. I know I’m going to be better. … But I don’t know when.”
The Nationals have lost the last six games the Cuban right-hander has started. He did not factor in the 9-6 loss Wednesday to the Cincinnati Reds, pitching 5 1-3 innings and giving up five runs and nine hits—including a two-run home run. Hernandez also walked four and struck out six.
Hernandez is 9-5 with a 4.08 ERA in 17 starts against the Cubs and has enjoyed recent success at Wrigley Field. He has won three of his last four starts there, posting a 1.67 ERA over 32 1-3 innings and pitching at least eight innings on each occasion.
Carlos Zambrano (1-2, 3.88) will try to win consecutive starts for the Cubs after a strong performance Wednesday, when he limited the San Francisco Giants to one run and five hits in a a season-high eight innings of Chicago’s 8-1 victory.
“It was the Carlos that we know and love,” Chicago manager Dusty Baker said.
Zambrano has allowed just one run in 15 innings over his last two starts, but the right-hander is 0-2 with a 5.48 ERA in four home starts this season, walking 15 in 23 innings. The 24-year-old right-hander is 2-2 with 4.22 in seven appearances against the Nationals, including five starts.
The Cubs were shut out for the fourth time in May and swept in a three-game series by the San Diego Padres with Sunday’s 9-0 defeat. Chicago, which has lost 14 of its last 16 games, has scored more than three runs just twice in that span,.
“Guys got to get together and reach back and find that pride and get this thing rolling before it’s too late,” Baker said.