After Rafael Soriano hurled a perfect eight-pitch ninth inning to save Washington’s 2-1 win over the Chicago Cubs on Sunday, their seventh victory in eight games, the Nationals had their ballpark to themselves as a kind of big league backyard for Family Day. Moms pitched batting practice to their munchkins who wore uniforms with their father’s numbers. Other Nats sat on the field with their kids as Racing Presidents knelt for toddler hugs. This is where daddy plays in the dirt.
Actually, in just another week, every Nats player, with the exception of Jordan Zimmermann, will have four Family Days in a row to enjoy because they sure won’t be at the All-Star Game in Minneapolis during the break in the regular season. Some flat got snubbed.
If Washington goes further in the postseason this year than St. Louis, Cardinals Manager Mike Matheny may look silly for putting 174 of his own players on the all-star team but only one Nat — Zimmermann — even though the Nats’ pitching staff leads the majors in ERA by a lot.
“One all-star? Little extra motivation,” one Nat said.
“I don’t want to say it’s a joke, but, man, that’s weird,” said Jayson Werth, shaking his head at the Nats’ solitary selection, the minimum number that every team gets, even if its record is 0-87, not 48-39 like the Nats, who are only a half-game out of first in the NL East.
Anthony Rendon’s 60 runs, 50 RBI and 38 extra-base hits merit a spot on the team in a year with generally weak third and second basemen. But he is only one of five players on the Final Vote — Major League Baseball’s attempt to suck the last drop of fan-vote enthusiasm from the spectacle.
Unfortunately, Rendon is unlikely to win the vote against better-known stars like Justin Morneau. Rendon is so little interested in fame that some around the team — okay, many — suspect he would just as soon get zero votes. So unless injuries open spots, it will be Zimmermann, who pitched six scoreless innings Sunday, who will be an all-star by his lonesome, just like those 100-plus-loss Nationals years.
In particular, the National who got no respect, as he sometimes hasn’t in D.C. itself, is Soriano, who is an all-star beyond any reasonable doubt. Many annoyed Nats mentioned the closer’s omission first.
“There is no way Soriano doesn’t make the All-Star Game in my opinion,” said Tyler Clippard, part of a Nats bullpen that has baseball’s third-best ERA but no all-star cred. “There’s no right or wrong way to pick relievers. But whatever way [you use], he’s one of ’em. His ERA is [1.03]. All his numbers are eye-popping. . . . Somebody didn’t take notice, and it doesn’t make sense.”
“Sori should be on the team,” Ryan Zimmerman added about the 34-year-old right-hander with 21 saves in 23 chances and a minuscule .139 batting average against him. “He knows how to read hitters, go back in there after their weaknesses [time after time]. He can spot [the ball] as well as anybody. His fastball is coming out a little better this year. He’s deceptive. He’s smart. When he has his fastball, cutter and slider all working, like he has this year, he’s really tough.”
Soriano started 2013 poorly, made a bad first impression, then improved as the season progressed as he fixed the tilt on his slider. He ended on a two-month roll and picked back up where he left off in what he thinks may be his second-best season, behind only 2010, when he led the AL in saves with 45 for Tampa Bay.
“This year, all my pitches work — fastball, cutter, slider. I don’t throw nothing that’s straight,” the 14-season vet said recently. “When I was younger I could throw 96, 97, sometimes 100. But I learned. You don’t have to do that if you can throw it where you want to.”
Now almost perfect command of very good stuff has replaced merely good control of higher velocity. “He has such confidence that when he finds a hole in a hitter’s swing, he can just keep coming back to it,” Clippard said. “And if he misses that spot, it isn’t by much. And he’s got so much presence on the mound that they don’t seem to square it up when he misses by a little.”
Long ago, when he was just a flamethrower, Soriano said he was told by a minor league coach “you can get them out at 90, too.” And through his career, including two years picking Mariano Rivera’s brain, he has learned how to do it. As the summer has warmed, though, he’s now touching 94 mph.
“I feel like I’m in the Dominican with the weather,” said Soriano, who often hides behind a language barrier that barely exists. “I’m feeling like I can let it go. I know that I can throw  when I feel it. [But] right now, for me, it’s location.”
Perhaps what’s most remarkable about Soriano is the way his entire season-and-a-half performance as a Nat has reached the point where his signing now looks like a major success. He was largely the free agent acquisition of owner Ted Lerner, who wanted to add a final piece for a World Series push from ’13 to ’15, including a team option for the Nats to keep Soriano next year for $14 million (a figure that’s probably unrealistic at age 35).
In ’13 and ’14 combined, Soriano’s ERA is a stellar 2.40 in 103 games, with 64 saves in 72 chances. How good is that 89 percent? Look up Rivera, the greatest closer ever: That’s exactly his career save percentage.
Soriano seems to show no emotion no matter what happens, a trait that can make fans feel comparably chilly toward him. Doesn’t he even care? But that’s largely a mask in a nerve-shredding job.
Last month, he gave up a game-tying homer with two outs in the ninth. “It was a terrible pitch. I still feel bad about it,” he said last week, his face screwing up in disgust. “We ended up losing the game [in extra innings]. And it was my mother’s birthday, too.”
Why did the birthday matter?
Soriano breaks out the smile he seldom shows and shrugs. “I was going to give the ball to her.”