Rafael Soriano and his missing slider

August 29, 2013
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Rafael Soriano knew he wasn’t using his slider as often as he has in seasons past. He just didn’t know exactly how little it was. The reason was simple. “It hasn’t felt the same,” he said.

Soriano is in the midst of perhaps his toughest season as a closer. His 35 saves are tied for second-most in the National League. But his six blown saves are a career high.

Between the all-star break and the beginning of this series against the Miami Marlins, he posted a 7.98 ERA and converted eight of 10 saves. The worst stretch was the nine-game period from Aug. 14-23 in which he allowed 13 hits, eight runs and three home runs over 6 1/3 innings. His overall 3.65 ERA is the highest of any of his seasons spent as a closer. He knows why he has struggled: His command hasn’t been as sharp, and he has left too many pitches up in the strike zone.

Soriano was reminded of another reason this week when his agent, Scott Boras, paid a visit to Nationals Park and mentioned the numbers on his slider usage. Soriano saved 42 of 46 chances last season with the New York Yankees and posted a 2.26 ERA. He used his slider 40.1 percent of the time. This season? He has thrown his slider only 14.6 percent, his lowest frequency since 2003.

Soriano knows his slider, one of his strikeout pitches, has been gone for stretches of the season. He hasn’t used the pitch because he has lacked confidence in it. That’s because it hasn’t had the same results, movement or feel. He said it has nothing to do with health; he feels good. Opponents are hitting .340 off his slider, according to BrooksBaseball.net. Last season, opponents hit .230 off his slider. For his career, Soriano’s slider held opponents to a .219 average. To compensate this season, Soriano has also thrown his slider a tick faster — 83.6 miles per hours compared to 82.9 mph — and it hasn’t helped with movement.

Soriano pulled up videos of his past pitching. He noticed a mechanical flaw. His recent delivery and execution, he said, “was very different” than the past. Soriano has noticed he isn’t standing tall like in the past. And, he said he isn’t getting his arm high enough in his delivery. As a result, his pitches lack the needed downward plane, especially to keep the ball low in the strike zone.

“I wasn’t uprighter, and the ball was out here,” he said, holding his right arm out more to his side instead of up over his head. “And with the fastball, too, because the hits or home runs I’ve given up were up high and didn’t have the angle.”

Soriano’s past two outings have been more encouraging because, in part, he turned to his slider more than before and tried to keep his arm higher. He has allowed only one hit in his past two saves. He buried a slider low and away to left-hander Logan Morrison on Tuesday to strike him out. He did the same thing to right-hander Ed Lucas. On Wednesday, he threw a low slider to right-hander Justin Ruggiano before elevating a 94-mph fastball for a strikeout. His slider appeared to be back.

FROM THE POST

After a rain delay knocks out Stephen Strasburg, Ian Desmond delivers the deciding hit in a 4-3 win after Jayson Werth is intentionally walked.

Don’t give up just yet, writes Thomas Boswell.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Stephen Strasburg exits early after rain, could start Sunday

Davey Johnson still undecided between Roark, Ohlendorf for Sunday’s start

Fort Myers reemerges as spring training option, officials to meet with Nationals

Ryan Mattheus returns to the Nationals

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Pawtucket 5, Syracuse 4: Danny Rosenbaum allowed four runs, three earned, on four hits over six innings. Tyler Robertson tossed a scoreless frame, then Mark Lowe allowed a run on two hits and Ian Krol completed the inning. Danny Espinosa went 3 for 5. Kris Watts and Corey Brown combined for five walks.

Harrisburg 2, Altoona 0: A.J. Cole tosses seven scoreless innings and strikes out seven while walking two. Billy Burns went 2 for 4 and is hitting .361 with Harrisburg. Steven Souza and Rick Hague drove in the lone runs.

Potomac 8, Winston-Salem 7 (11): With the win, the Nationals claimed the second half Carolina League Northern Division championship. They also claimed the first half crown and now secured home field advantage in the playoffs. Kevin Keyes hit homers in the seventh and 11th innings in a game that was suspended on July 11.

Winston-Salem 5, Potomac 0 (7): Brett Mooneyham allowed five runs, only three earned, over five innings. Rob Wort tossed a scoreless sixth inning. Kevin Keyes went 2 for 3.

Hagerstown 4, Lakewood 2: Dakota Bacus tossed six scoreless, while walking four and striking out two and allowing only one one hit, in his first start in the Nationals system. Bryan Harper notched his career-first save. Wander Ramos went 2 for 4 with two RBI. Tony Renda and Estarlin Martinez each notched two hits.

Auburn 2, Batavia 0 (7): Lucas Giolito allowed only four hits and one walk over five scoreless innings and struck out five. Benjamin Grisz tossed two scoreless relief innings. Matt Foat went 2 for 3 with an RBI. And Cody Gunter went 1 for 3 with an RBI.

Batavia 3, Auburn 0 (7): Casey Selsor allowed three runs on six hits over five innings. David Napoli lowered his ERA to 1.25. James Yezzo with 1 for 3 with a triple.

James Wagner joined the Post in August 2010 and, prior to covering the Nationals, covered high school sports across the region.
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