VIERA, Fla. — A month had passed since the end of his first year with the Washington Nationals, and the blemishes of the season still preoccupied Rafael Soriano. “I was going crazy,” he said. Soriano placated the nagging thoughts by instead imagining the next season. He ate better and worked out. “Normally, I do it in December,” Soriano said. “This year, I do it in November.”
The results of Soriano’s extra month of work could be seen as he arrived here for his second — and possibly last — season as the Nationals’ closer, leaner and fitter than at any point in his first. Soriano shed 10 pounds over the winter, losing an outer layer he believes led to diminished velocity and an unusable breaking ball. The shirt he untucks after saves will be smaller this year.
Soriano recorded 43 saves and blew only six during his maiden season in Washington, but he was more serviceable than dominant. Even in victory, he waged ninth innings of attrition. He lost about 1 mph off his fastball on average, down to 91.4 mph. He allowed more hits (8.8) and struck out fewer batters (6.89) per nine innings than in any other full season of his career. The struggles motivated him to start conditioning earlier and drop weight.
“I mean, I don’t feel too comfortable about last year, how the game happened for me,” Soriano said. “I want to see if I can get a little bit on my velocity, a little bit more. I don’t think it be bad numbers for me. I want to get, like, 50 saves, something like that.”
Soriano, 34, has always relied on guile more than a typical closer, but in 2013 he rendered himself a pitcher with few options. From the start of the year, he threw flat, lazy breaking balls. Hitters clobbered them, and so he largely abandoned the pitch. In 2012 with the New York Yankees, 40 percent of Soriano’s pitches were sliders. Last year, the number dropped to 15.5 percent.
“If I’ve got my stuff and they hit it, I’m fine,” Soriano said. “I’ll take it. I got a problem when my second pitch is not there. Most of the time I throw a fastball. There’s one guy that do that [stuff]. Mariano [Rivera]. There’s nobody else.”
And so Soriano got himself into better shape. No one told him to lose the weight, and Soriano does not feel motivated by a need to prove himself to Washington. “It’s about myself,” he said. “A lot of the things I do, I do it for myself. I want to be better for the team.”
Financial considerations may also drive Soriano this season, which in all likelihood is a contract year. Soriano’s two-year deal, signed prior to 2013, includes a $14 million option for 2015 that will vest if he reaches 120 games finished in 2013 and 2014 combined. He needs to have 62 games finished after he recorded 58 his first season in Washington.
It would be stunning if the Nationals allowed him to hit the milestone, and it would be difficult to attain, anyway. Last year, only two relievers — Jim Johnson and Steve Cishek, if you want to win some bar bets — reached 62 games finished. And so Soriano will almost certainly hit the market this winter.
The Nationals have learned, after one season with Soriano, they have a closer who follows his own program. Soriano arrived at Space Coast Stadium on Thursday afternoon, walked into Matt Williams’s office and saluted his new manager.
By the end of their conversation, Williams consented to Soriano’s desire to delay his first formal throwing. Every pitcher in Nationals camp has thrown his first bullpen session of the spring except one. Soriano will climb the mound for his Tuesday.
“Sori is on his normal program,” Williams said Saturday, before chuckling. “Well, it’s not normal.”
Once Soriano takes the mound, he plans to ramp up slowly. Last year, he requested that he pitch in eight games — and only eight games — during the Grapefruit League schedule.
“I’m going 40 percent” Tuesday, Soriano said. “In this weather? For me? This weather is not good for me.”
At the locker next to him, Ross Detwiler overheard Soriano’s plans. “Too cold?” Detwiler asked him.
“The problem is when I go to the Dominican right away, everything be [messed] up,” Soriano replied.
“You can come stay in St. Louis one winter with me,” Detwiler said.
“No chance, bro,” Soriano said, drawing laughter from Detwiler.
Soriano pulled on a hooded sweatshirt and headed to practice with the rest of his teammates and played long toss out on a back field. From a distance, some Nationals officials shook their heads at how much slimmer he looked than last season. Soriano kept lobbing the ball from center field to the left field foul line, finally able to keep last season out of his head.