In his first season as the Nationals’ closer, all of Rafael Soriano’s 68 appearances were contained within one inning. Once he walked into the dugout, he was done. And only one time did he inherit a base runner to start his outing.
And so it came as a surprise Sunday afternoon when Soriano trotted in from the bullpen with two runners on base and two outs in the fifth inning. After he induced a weak chopper for the third out, Soriano re-emerged to pitch the sixth.
Though Soriano never attempted a four-out save last season, pitching coach Steve McCatty and Soriano had discussed preparing for the possibility. On a night when Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen both could use rest, the Nationals want to be ready to ask Soriano for more than three outs.
“It was just something that had been in the back of the my mind,” McCatty said. “We talked about it before. He said he was able to do it. So that was the plan.”
After he came out for the sixth, Soriano allowed a run on line-drive hits from Robbie Grossman and Jose Altuve. McCatty reminded him to slow down his delivery and not open his front shoulder too soon. Soriano followed the advice and struck out the last two hitters he faced, Jason Castro and Chris Carter.
** In his third start of the spring, left-hander Gio Gonzalez allowed one earned in 4 2/3 innings on three hits and a walk, striking out four. Gonzalez faced the minimum through four innings, erasing the only hit allowed with a double play, but the Astros struck for a run in the fifth.
Gonzalez focused on his changeup. He estimated he threw the pitch about 30 percent of the time, and he was able to throw it for strikes in the counts he wanted. “It’s a feel pitch,” Gonzalez said. “Sandy [Leon] calling it over and over, and calling it in the counts I wanted it in, that just builds confidence. That’s what I wanted to do.”
Gonzalez had a largely uneventful day aside from one play, which provided him both encouragement and a minor scare. In the fourth, Grossman ripped a grounder toward the hole on the right side. First baseman Brock Peterson made a tremendous, diving backhand stop.
When he arrived in spring training, Gonzalez vowed he would be more vigilant about covering first base. Given a chance, Gonzalez beat the speedy Grossman by a half step.
“It was nice to finally beat a runner out to first,” Gonzalez said. “You joke about it. But on a serious note, that’s something I really wanted to work on for a while. Getting over got me out of that inning.”
Once Gonzalez returned to the mound, though, he grimaced and tried to stretch out his back. He remained in the game, came out for another inning and said later he felt no ill effects.
“I was trying to loosen up again,” Gonzalez said. “It’s getting a little tight going out there. I felt fine after that. It’s funny, because even Altuve was like, ‘You alright? Take your time.’ My main concern was just staying loose.”
** Center field prospect Brian Goodwin showcased his various tools. He smoked a triple to right-center field in the second inning, getting on top of a Scott Feldman fastball. He also tracked down a drive to the warning track, snaring the ball just in front of the 410-foot sign. … Reliever Manny Delcarmen bounced back from a rocky, wild outing with two scoreless innings. He struck the last two hitters he faced with mitt-popping high fastballs; McCatty gave catcher Koyie Hill credit for setting up the pitches so well. Delcarmen looks like a pitcher who will start in Class AAA, but could help the Nationals at some point during the season. … Zach Walters had been scalding all spring, but today he went 0 for 5 with three strikeouts.