OAKLAND, Calif. — As the throw from left fielder Zach Walters flew into the infield, Washington Nationals closer Rafael Soriano positioned himself between the mound and home plate. Clinging to a 3-2 lead with two outs in the ninth inning on Saturday and a runner at second base, Soriano hung a slider to Oakland Athletics third baseman Josh Donaldson, who smacked it into left field.
Walters, in his first major league start in the outfield, fielded the single on one hop and fired a throw home. As Jed Lowrie steamed toward the plate, Soriano inexplicably cut off Walters’s throw, which was on line and quite possibly on time — and instead looked Donaldson back to first. No one will ever know if Walter’s throw could have cut down the game-tying run because Soriano never allowed the ball to get there.
The Nationals lost the game, 4-3, in the 10th inning when Drew Storen surrendered the winning run on John Jaso’s double to right, but the team collapsed in the ninth inning because Soriano failed for the first time this season. His career-best streak of 25 scoreless innings came to a screeching halt on Saturday, squandering Tanner Roark’s dominant star.
“A bad day,” Soriano said after the game in a solemn clubhouse. “That’s all I can say. I cannot be perfect every time.”
After Soriano cut off the throw and Lowrie scored, catcher Wilson Ramos put his hands up over his head in disbelief as he looked at his pitcher. It was Soriano’s first blown save of the season and ended a string of 19 straight save chances converted.
“I think that be a big mistake,” Soriano said of cutting off Walters’ throw. “I don’t think the guy we have playing on that throw. I asked Ramos. He think it be a big play. I [messed] it up twice.”
“I think we’ve got a chance,” Manager Matt Williams added. “I don’t know why he cut that ball off. I think, one, he should be backing up the play, in case the ball gets by. And so, I don’t know what he’s doing there. I don’t know why he cut it.”
More than a month into the season, the Nationals are a ragged bunch. Although they welcomed the return of Ramos and starter Doug Fister this week, their lineup remained without Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman. In addition, first baseman Adam LaRoche, the team’s best hitter so far this season, missed Saturday’s game and will land on the disabled list with a lingering quad strain.
Still, they managed enough offense to enter the ninth with a 3-1 lead. All their scoring came in the third inning against Oakland right-hander Sonny Gray, one of the top pitchers over the first month of the season. Gray entered with a 1.91 ERA in seven starts before stumbling in the third against the Nationals when Danny Espinosa homered and Kevin Frandsen, playing first for LaRoche, doubled to score Walters and Denard Span.
Jaso’s homer in the third was one of only two hits allowed by Roark, who was lifted with two outs in the eighth with a 3-1 lead. Roark carved through an A’s offense averaging nearly five runs per game, inviting contact and using all of his pitches.
Roark effectively used his comeback fastball, a two-seamer that started in on left-handed batters but broke back over the plate, as he did against Alberto Callaspo and Craig Gentry. He fired first-pitch breaking balls to aggressive swingers, such as Yoenis Cespedes.
At one point, Roark sat down 10 in a row and 19 of 20. He was also efficient, requiring just 23 pitches to get through the sixth and seventh innings. But his gem evaporated in the ninth when Soriano was knocked around by the Athletics.
“It’s baseball,” Roark said. “There’s a lot that happens. Sometimes stuff happens like this.”
Williams came to get Roark at 95 pitches and with Josh Reddick on third with two outs in the eighth. Tyler Clippard got Derek Norris to pop out to end the inning. Williams had his bullpen set up and called on Soriano to pitch the ninth.
“Going to the ninth with a two-run lead with a guy who hasn't given up a run in 25 innings, and it doesn’t happen for ya,” Williams said. “It’s disappointing. But that’s baseball.”
The Nationals were already set to lose their slugging first baseman to the DL and then mistakes by Soriano and Storen ended the night on a sour note. Storen allowed a leadoff single to Callaspo in the 10th. After notching two outs, Storen fired a fastball over the plate that Jaso hit hard to right field. The ball hit high up on the scoreboard, above leaping right fielder Nate McLouth.
“It’s just one of those nights,” Storen said. “Was tough on us. Tanner had a great outing. It’s pretty tough.”