After Donnie Murphy smashed a fastball left over the heart of the plate into the center field seats in the bottom of the ninth on Tuesday, it felt like the other Rafael Soriano outings of the past week. Before Tuesday, the Nationals’ high-priced closer had blown two straight saves, and it would have three blown saves if not for Denard Span’s circus game-saving catch on Aug. 14.
The Nationals’ season has been disappointing for a variety of reasons, and among the them has been the inconsistent back end of the bullpen. The Nationals have converted only 69 percent of their save opportunities (35 of 51 chances), just about league average. Before he was sent to the minors and returned dominant, Drew Storen blew five save chances, although few were ninth-inning appearances.
Soriano has blown six saves on his own, a career high. In the first season of his two-year, $28-million deal, the right-hander has converted 32 of 38 save chances, a 84 conversion rate that is just two percentage points lower than Cincinnati’s all-star Aroldis Chapman.
“I’ve been leaving pitches up,” Soriano said before Tuesday’s game. “Keep working on it. I haven’t had a stretch like this in my career. Things happen for a reason.”
Consider his at-bat against Murphy, who entered the game with six homers.
Soriano finished Tuesday’s with two strikeouts and a lineout, but he still painted the top edge of strike zone. In his previous two blown saves, Soriano kept the ball up and he was doomed by home runs. What made those longballs worse were the walks he issued just before them. His walk rate is lower this season: 2.2 BB/9 compared to his 3.2 BB/9 rate during his 43-save 2012 season with the Yankees. But his strikeout rate has dipped from 9.2 K/9 to 6.9 K/9.
“I don’t think I was attacking those hitters enough,” he said. “That was part of the mistake. And you keep learning. Next time I get, I’ll try to keep improving on it. I rarely walk guys. That bugged me.”
Despite his recent stumbles, Soriano has 32 saves. Only three other Nationals closers have hit the 30-save mark: Storen (2011), Chad Codero (2005 and 2007) and Tyler Clippard (2012). At 33, Soriano has saved that milestone only three times in his unusual 12-year career. He didn’t become a closer in earnest until 2009 and lost out on a prime year of closing in 2011 to serve as Mariano Rivera’s setup man.
Relieving and closing are such volatile positions. Few closers enjoy success for long stretches. Soriano is one of eight closers to notch at least at least 30 games three times in past five years. The company: Francisco Cordero (3 times), Mariano Rivera (4), Joe Nathan (3), Brian Wilson (3), Jonathan Papelbon (4), Heath Bell (3) and Craig Kimbrel (3)
“Thirty saves isn’t much,” Soriano said. “I have had some games where I had the chance to get the save and I didn’t do my job. And with how the team has been, I haven’t had more opportunities. I thought by now I’d have maybe have saved 40 or 50 games because we’d be winning more. But it just hasn’t been the case. It’s nobody’s fault. We’ve all been trying our best.”