Soriano on fire as Cubs eye stretch run

Soriano leading Cubs surge

CHICAGO -- Alfonso Soriano's smile is back.

In 15 games since coming off the disabled list, the Cubs left fielder is batting .389 with six homers, five doubles and 15 RBIs. He added to those totals on Wednesday, hitting a three-run homer in Chicago's 11-4 win over the Houston Astros.

"He's swinging it, he really is, and he's hitting the ball out of the blalpark," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "Let's keep him hot."

Soriano is more concerned about staying healthy for the final 48 games of the regular season than his hit totals. He's already been on the disabled list twice this season, once for his calf and most recently because of a broken bone in his left hand. That's enough.

"I'm a little surprised," Soriano said of his recent success, "because I took my time to come back to make sure I was 100 percent with my hand. I worked hard with my hands and my legs, and I came back. The most important thing is there's no pain, and if there's no pain, I can swing the bat hard."

Having the powerful right-handed bat in the lineup sets everything else up for the Cubs, who have a five-game lead in the National League Central. That's also something to smile about.

"I said all along, when we were in that Houston-Arizona road trip [after the All-Star break], that once we got Soriano back in the lineup, it would help stabilize things offensively, and it has," Piniella said. "His presence in the lineup means a lot to us in different ways. First of all, there's his offensive presence, and we can also rest our catcher [Geovany Soto] a little more.

"We can rotate our outfielders a little more [with Soriano back], and we can build from the [No.] 1 spot in the lineup," Piniella said. "I can go 1-3-4 [in the lineup] and do whatever we want with the other spots. It gives us a lot of flexbility."

Piniella has heard the critics who feel Soriano is better suited to bat fourth or fifth.

"When he gets hot, he carries you," Piniella said. "What people have to realize is with the leadoff spot, once you lead off, you're only going to lead off once a game. The back part of our lineup -- we put it together so there's some offense back there. So when we get to the front part of our lineup, there's some people on."

"Most guys get hot, they get a couple knocks. He gets hot and hits balls in the seats on a daily basis."
-- Mark DeRosa,
on Alfonso Soriano

That's all the inspiration Soriano needs.

"He's hot," Derrek Lee said. "It seems like he's hitting a three-run homer every single day. When he gets in a zone, you can't throw him a strike or he's going to hit a home run. He's big for us."

The Cubs players knew what they were missing when Soriano was sidelined six weeks because of his hand injury.

"You see the difference he makes," Lee said.

"I feel very comfortable at home plate, and more importantly, helped the team to win," Soriano said.

Feeling comfortable means Soriano isn't swinging at bad pitches, only offering at those in the zone. It's a dangerous area for opposing pitchers lately.

"When he gets hot, it's pretty unbelievable," Chicago's Mark DeRosa said of the All-Star left fielder. "Most guys get hot, they get a couple knocks. He gets hot and hits balls in the seats on a daily basis."

Soriano now has hit at least 20 homers for the seventh straight season, and despite missing so much time, leads the team with 21. The Cubs have a balanced offense, with five players with at least 55 RBIs and four with at least 17 home runs.

"Our lineup, [Nos.] 1-8, it's tough," said DeRosa, who has 12 homers and 63 RBIs, including his second grand slam of the season on Wednesday. "There's not much room for error there. There are a lot of guys who are capable of leaving the park with one swing. We have a lot of guys who know their roles and work to get on base.

"It seems like it's been 'Sori' a lot lately, which is a nice thing," DeRosa said. "Having him back in our lineup obviously is huge. No one takes the place of a superstar when he's missing from your lineup. I just think he calms us down and puts our lineup in a nice rhythm."

Soriano also lightens the mood with his bright smile and laugh in the dugout. He can definitely carry a team. Last September, Soriano batted .320 with 14 homers and 27 RBIs. Is he in the same kind of groove?

"I don't know -- it feels great for me, because I feel very comfortable at home plate and I'm hitting the ball well now," Soriano said. "I don't know why, I don't know how. I work hard in the cage, work on my swing. I stay comfortable at home plate, swing at good pitches. It's a combination. It comes with work."

Soriano's not thinking about home runs or making up for lost time spent on the DL.

"No, just see the ball and keep it simple," Soriano said. "Swing at strikes and see what happens."

So far, so good.

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.