If the Nationals have learned one thing about Rafael Soriano in three weeks with their new closer, it is this: “He’s a character, to say the least,” Manager Davey Johnson said.
Soriano, in a way the Nationals don’t seem to mind, is on his own program. He is typically one of the last players to arrive in the clubhouse each morning, and when he does the bachata music blares so loudly from his headphones it can be heard throughout the room. He leaves early most games if he makes first pitch at all. He requested he not pitch against divisional opponents during the spring, and Johnson obliged.
“He’s a quiet guy,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “I know Desi rags him, gets him laughing and stuff. He’s been great.”
Today, the Nationals learned something about the way he pitches. In his spring debut, Soriano faced three batters and threw 12 pitches, seven of them strikes. He allowed a single to J.D. Martinez, which Suzuki erased by throwing out a pinch runner stealing, and struck out Robbie Grossman to finish the inning.
“Just kind of getting his work in,” Suzuki said. “It was still coming out good. I’m sure he was a little pumped up. He threw some good pitches.”
The best may have been his last. After former National and Maryland alum Justin Maxwell flew to deep center and Suzuki gunned down the runner, Soriano worked a full count against Grossman. In his first game action of the year, he twirled a slider over the plate. Grossman flailed and walked back to the dugout.
“You throw that 3-2 slider first thing out of the chute, it’s pretty impressive,” Suzuki said.
Soriano’s fastball made an impression, too. He does not throw gas like many closers. He relies on small, sharp movement with his fastball.
“It’s sneaky, and it cuts and it sinks,” Suzuki said. “He’s sneaky. It’s like easy. So when it comes on, it’s like, whoosh! It kind of gets on you. He’s so free and easy, when the ball comes out of his hand, it jumps on you.”
Soriano waited more than a week from the Nationals’ first game to get his first taste. And then their offense made him wait longer, scoring five runs in the sixth inning as he warmed up.
“He was a little frustrated we had all those rallies,” Johnson said. “He was ready to go. He said he was down there throwing knuckleballs and stuff, trying to kill some time. But he’s fine. He knows exactly what he wants to do to get ready for the season. He’s fun.”
— Before the game, Ryan Zimmerman fired throws across the diamond from third base to first for the first time this spring. “Everything was normal,” Zimmerman said. Zimmerman has been making steady progress with his arm strength and rebuilt throwing mechanics all spring. Zimmerman has gone 2 for 6 as a designated hitter. As for playing in the field, “I don’t think we’re far off from a week, give or take either way,” Zimmerman said.
— Danny Espinosa’s rewired left-handed swing yielded positive results. He went 2 for 3 with two sharp singles and a stolen base today, all of his at-bats coming from the left side. The only out he recorded came when he laid down a bunt and was called out on a close play at first. On the spring, Espinosa is 8 for 22 with six strikeouts in two walks.
“Looks a whole lot better,” Johnson said. “I’m really pleased with his spring so far.”
— The Nationals optioned left-handed starter Matt Purke to Class A Hagerstown. Purke, a top prospect rehabbing from offseason shoulder surgery, will likely begin throwing in minor league games by mid-May, Johnson said. Purke has been throwing bullpen sessions at “a little over 50 percent,” Johnson said. Shoulder troubles limited Purke to three starts last year. The Nationals signed him to a major league deal worth more than $4 million out of the 2011 draft.
— The Nationals’ 7-1 victory gave them a four-game win streak and improved their Grapefruit League record to 5-3-2. Zach Duke chipped in three scoreless innings. In six innings this spring, he has allowed zero runs, walked none and struck out five.