After he got Reds pinch hitter Chris Heisey out to finish Sunday’s 4-2 win, Rafael Soriano yanked his jersey out from under his belt. He high-fived catcher Jose Lobaton in between home plate and the mound, and then the rest of the team. Though the celebration was the same for the 13-year veteran as any other, the save was a career milestone that held special significance for Soriano.
With his 25th save of the season, Soriano notched his 200th save and became the 46th reliever in history to reach that mark. Sixty-eight have come in a Nationals uniform.
“I be happy for that I be happy for that because it’s not something too many people have,” Soriano said. “I know in my career, in my situation right now, it not be long and I start late to be the closer. I try to take every opportunity that I can have to save. I’m going to thank God for every opportunity he give me in the big leagues.”
Soriano became a closer late in his career. He was on track to become the closer in 2008 with the Atlanta Braves but then he missed much of the year with a balky right elbow. A year later, he notched 27 saves the Braves and his career as a closer took off at the age of 29. He notched 45 with Tampa Bay in 2010, 42 in 2012 with the Yankees and 43 last season with the Nationals.
“When I be healthy, I can do my job,” he said. “I know a couple years I be hurt and I lost a lot of time in that situation.”
Soriano didn’t know until Saturday that his next save would his 200th until a reporter mentioned the upcoming milestone to him. When told, his eyes lit up. That he reached his 200th save at 34 after a late start in his career as a closer added extra meaning, he said.
He wasn’t originally, however, supposed to pitch on Sunday. Manager Matt Williams said he wanted to stay away from Soriano late in the game. He was warming with a three-run lead to start the ninth inning but once Anthony Rendon’s single gave the Nationals a 4-0 lead Williams got Aaron Barrett up in the bullpen.
But Barrett gave up two singles and Soriano came in for the save chance. Soriano threw a first-pitch slider to Devin Mesoraco that home plate umpire Toby Basner called a ball but appeared to be just on the edge.
“He made me pitch different,” Soriano said. “I feel bad for Barrett in that situation. … Now I gotta throw more inside. I don’t pitch like that.”
Soriano threw a 1-1 slider in nearly the same spot but a little higher and Mesoraco smashed it for a two-run double that trimmed the lead to 4-2, and runs that were charged to Barrett. With the tying run at the plate, Soriano then struck out Jack Hannahan, got a Donald Lutz groundout and Heisey flyout to end the frame. He didn’t have some of his best stuff but he used his veteran guile to wriggle out with a win and a career milestone.
“He’s great,” catcher Jose Lobaton said. “To be a closer with that ERA,  saves, that’s because you’re good. He know what he’s doing. That’s something that makes a difference for the team. We need that guy in the ninth inning that can save the game. He’s that guy. I know he’s been doing good and he’s going to keep doing the same for the team.”
In the clubhouse, as they dressed to leave for Miami, teammates congratulated Soriano. “Hey Sori, congrats,” Bryce Harper said from a few lockers away. Barrett, a rookie who Soriano has taken under his wing, shook hands with Soriano and cracked a joke. “Now I’ll always be part of your 200th save,” he told Soriano with a smile.
“Congratulations to him,” Williams told reporters. “He’s pitched really well.”
Asked about what if he had any future milestone goals, Soriano focused instead on the future. The Nationals hold a $14 million team option for 2015, half of which is deferred. The option vests if Soriano finishes 120 games between 2013 and 2014, but he isn’t on pace to trigger it.
“We’ll see what happens,” he said. “I think I gonna be a free agent soon and I don’t know what gonna happen. I keep going and trying to help my team win and see what happens this year.”