After a fantastic first half of the season, the Washington Nationals' Rafael Soriano hasn't been the same in the second. He has allowed 10 runs over his past 112/3 innings since the All-Star break. He also has blown three saves, including one Sunday. He has been scored on in three of his past four outings.
Soriano still has 29 saves, and his ERA is still only 2.59 ERA, but his five blown saves are tied for fourth most in the National League. His recent rough stretch and struggles with command have raised questions for manager Matt Williams. After Sunday's 11-inning victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates, Williams backed his closer.
Williams said he could "potentially" reshuffle the bullpen so that Soriano could pitch in less pressure-packed situations, allowing the right-hander to iron out his problems, but he said he wants Soriano to remain the closer.
"He's been our closer all year, and I don't see that changing as of right now," Williams said. "He's been up a lot recently, pitching a lot of games, and hopefully the games don't present themselves like that and we can give him some rest and give him a chance to cool down a little bit and kick back. … It's just been a little off, that's all."
Although Soriano was pitching in his fourth game in five days, he said after the game that he felt "great."
"For every pitch that I throw, it be unbelievable," he added. "Never happen before like that. I feel bad because [starter Doug] Fister, he throw a great game. He supposed to win that game. To me, I think I feel bad for him."
Soriano's night was off from the start. After missing outside to Starling Marte with a tight strike zone, he missed badly with a 2-2 fastball and hit him. He then gave up a line-drive single to Travis Snider, a ball that hit off first baseman Adam LaRoche's glove and could have been a double play if snagged. Marte went from first to third on the hit.
Facing Ike Davis, Soriano uncorked a wild pitch that scored Marte. He then walked Davis and got Gaby Sanchez to ground out. But his command woes again cost him. He left a low, 93-mph fastball over the plate, and Gregory Polanco smashed it to deep right-center field for a two-run double that blew the save. Williams wasn't going to take Soriano out of the game until the game was tied.
"He's been our closer all year and done a great job for us," Williams said. "Lately it hasn't been what he wants but we've got to give him a chance to get out of that inning."
Soriano said he tried to adjust his command issues mid-inning but couldn't.
"I try to make a good pitch" to Polanco, he said. "This guy be locked in in the ninth. I know what I have to do. I try to make a good pitch. Nothing happen. Matt, he take a good decision. He take me out and put Matt" Thornton in.
After Polanco's hit, Soriano trudged slowly off the mound to a loud chorus of boos, perhaps the loudest of the year by a Nationals Park crowd for a Nationals player. Soriano took no issue, at least publicly, with the crowd's displeasure.
"I think the fan here not be the same fans in New York, because I play two years in New York and it be more loud than that," the former Yankee said. "I no do my job. What I have to say? Nothing. I know I not do my job because I'm supposed to do it. Come back tomorrow and forget everything that happened today. I want to do my job and come back tomorrow and see what happens."
After Sunday's game, shortstop Ian Desmond defended Soriano. "Soriano has pitche[d] his butt off for us all year," Desmond tweeted. "I'd take him in the 9th any day of the week. All the booing tonight was ridiculous."
Williams' thoughts were more measured. "Our fans are very supportive of all of us," he said. "It's disappointing when you have a lead in the ninth and you don't close the game out, but the next time he goes out there and goes 1-2-3, they'll cheer for him, too. So that's OK."
All relievers have rough patches, and Soriano is in the midst of his worst of the season. His command — he has missed the plate and left fastballs up too often — and the ineffectiveness of his slider lately have plagued him.
"The last three or four games, I don't be comfortable," Soriano said. "It not be too easy for me. It happens sometimes. This year, at home, I think it's the second time that happened to me."
"It's just balls up in the strike zone over his last three or four [games], and over the middle of the plate," Williams added. "He hasn't been able to command his slider, either. The problem is, with a bullpen guy, it's difficult for him to work on it in the bullpen, because he's going to be forced into action potentially the next day or that night. But he's just been up in the strike zone."