Soriano agrees to play left for Nationals

JUPITER, Fla. -- Alfonso Soriano's only chance in left field Wednesday was a reminder of the good old days, before the Washington Nationals finally persuaded him to change positions.

Soriano jogged in a few steps to catch a routine fly ball by Albert Pujols and then threw to second base to double off David Eckstein.

"I never think I'm going to make a double play in the outfield," Soriano said. "But I did it."

Soriano agreed to make the move from second base only two days after refusing to take his new spot in the outfield. The Nationals had a day off Tuesday, giving him time to accept the switch.

"It's a relief for everybody, it really is," manager Frank Robinson said before the game. "We get the distractions away from here and we can focus on baseball now and getting this ballclub tuned up and ready to go for Opening Day."

Now, all Soriano needs is his own glove. He borrowed prospect George Lombard's outfield model Wednesday during a 9-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.

There wasn't much suspense earlier in the day. Robinson had Soriano batting leadoff in left field on his lineup card several hours before game time, and the player was all smiles during batting practice. He even signed several autographs.

Soriano was an AL All-Star the last four years at second base and played there this spring for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic. He has never played the outfield in a major-league game and said the last time he played there in spring training was in 2001.

The Nationals got Soriano in a December trade with Texas for outfielders Brad Wilkerson and Terrmel Sledge and minor-league pitcher Armando Galarraga, and general manager Jim Bowden and Robinson have been trying to persuade Soriano to switch positions since. Washington already has an established second baseman, three-time All-Star Jose Vidro.

Robinson considers the position move permanent, saying he doesn't even view Soriano as the backup at second base.

"We're doing it for the season," Robinson said. "We didn't ask him to do it for today, that's not the answer we wanted."

After the game, Soriano was not arguing.

"I have no choice," he said. "I love the game. I hope I stay healthy and I hope they play me there every day because I love the game."

His teammates were happy to have him in the lineup. Soriano batted .268 with 36 homers, a career-best 104 RBI and 30 steals last year. He has averaged 35 homers, 97 RBI and 31 steals the last four seasons.

"We're a better team with him, no doubt about it," catcher Brian Schneider said. "He is a good guy, he was just put in a real tough situation.

"I'm just glad he made the decision to go out there and help us out, help us win," Schneider said.

Soriano was 1-for-3, and he doubled and scored the Nationals' first run in the fourth. In the bottom half, he made the play to double off Eckstein, who wandered far from the bag believing the ball would drop for a hit.

Soriano had been scheduled to make his first spring training appearance Monday night against the Dodgers. But after being listed on the lineup card in left field, he refused to play.

"I had a meeting with the GM and Robinson and I said, 'If you put me in left field I'm not sure I'm ready to go there,'" Soriano said. "So I don't know why they put me there."

Bowden threatened to put Soriano on the disqualified list, which would prevent him from playing, accruing service time and receiving his $10 million salary.

And even though Soriano has now agreed to play the outfield, Bowden said Wednesday he would still explore a trade if it would benefit the Nationals.

"My preference would be to keep him, you're a much better team with him," Bowden said. "But I'll never close the door -- ever -- on an opportunity to make everybody happy."

Robinson said he gave Soriano the option of not playing Wednesday and making his outfield debut on Thursday for a home game. But he said Soriano wanted to get started now, and he wanted to play the entire game.

"All I wanted to know from him was, was he willing to play left field," Robinson said. "He said he was ready to go, he wanted to get at-bats and get out there and play."

Robinson said he'd be patient with Soriano if he struggles at his new position. All he wanted to see was effort.

"Just knowing him for a brief period of time I feel like he's going to go out there and give it 110 percent," Robinson said. "We're not talking about a Gold Glove or anything like that, just go out there and do the best you possibly can."

Robinson said Soriano never really took a "defiant" stand in conversations with the team. The manager said it just took time for the club's stance to sink in.

"I told him, 'You have to understand our side of it,' and I think now he does," Robinson said. "It makes us a much better ballclub."

Despite the chaos, Bowden said he does not regret making the trade.

"The risk is always there," Bowden said. "When I made the Ken Griffey Jr. trade with Cincinnati, everyone said this was one of the best trades in baseball, congratulations, and he was hurt for four years and it was a horrible trade.

"That's part of the game," he said.

Soriano had the lone hit off Jason Marquis, who allowed one run in 5 2/3 innings, the longest outing by a Cardinals starter this spring. Pujols hit a two-run double in his first game back after playing for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic.

The Nationals committed three errors, giving them a major league-high 39 in 22 spring games.