The next, likely final phase of Rafael Soriano’s career with the Nationals began Wednesday afternoon. Stripped of his closer job and focused on altered mechanics after a five-day hiatus, Soriano returned to the mound and pitched a scoreless eighth inning with the Nationals trailing by five runs, the “soft landing” Manager Matt Williams had sought for him.
Soriano struck out one, allowed two hits, both line drives, and escaped only when Freddie Freeman scorched a lineout to third base. But Soriano felt improvement, especially with his slider, the pitch he worked on during his bullpen session Monday.
“I feel better,” Soriano said. “I think there was something I found out the last time that I pitched here. I think everything came back the same.”
Soriano threw nine strikes in 15 pitches. He induced two swing-and-misses on five sliders, one from Freeman and one from second baseman Phil Gosselin, whom he eventually struck out. The pitch had “better down angle” and “more depth,” Williams said. Soriano focused on the mechanical adjustment he made during Monday’s side work.
“I tried to stay a little bit back and have good balance,” Soriano said. “My power is in the back. That’s what I do today. I tried to be on top of the ball and better with rotation.”
Soriano’s outing started with a pop up to left by B.J. Upton. He fell behind, 2-0, to pinch hitter Ryan Doutmit on an inside fastball. After Jason Heyward crushed a single to right, a handful of fans hurled boos. But Soriano struck out Gosselin, throwing him two hard-breaking sliders, and got Freeman on the lineout.
Despite the hard contact, Soriano gained confidence from the outing.
“It’s not my back. It’s not that my arm is sore or is tired,” Soriano said. “It’s the mechanics. It’s something that I’m doing with my slider. My fastball this year is more strong than I was last year. I think everything will be more normal now.”
For Soriano, it’s hard to say what will be normal now. He signed a two-year, $28 million contract prior to 2013 to serve as the Nationals closer. He nearly made the all-star team this season and has saved 74 games over the past two seasons.
Soriano blew a three-run save Friday night against the Phillies when he allowed home runs to Carlos Ruiz and light-hitting Ben Revere. At that point, Soriano had blown five saves and posted a 6.98 ERA since the all-star break.
Williams gave Soriano a two-day break and then had him throw a bullpen session. In the meantime, Drew Storen saved three consecutive games, retiring all nine hitters he faced and striking out six.
“I feel fine,” Soriano said. “I talked to Matt. He told me he’s going to give me a couple days, and he said Drew is going to be the closer. I’m happy because we win and he did his job. I’m happy for that.”
Soriano came to Washington with a reputation as a mercurial teammate, but the Nationals have not found that to be the case. Nationals decision-makers view Soriano as a professional who accept a set-up relief role down the stretch and in the postseason.
Asked if he would be comfortable as a set-up reliever, Soriano did not want to speculate. “I don’t know,” Soriano said. “I’ll figure it out. I haven’t talked to anybody to see how I’m going to be in the bullpen. I’ll wait and see.”
Williams had wanted to re-introduce Soriano in a low-stress setting. For his next appearance, Soriano could pitch in a more meaningful situation.
“We’ll see how the games play out, who’s available, who isn’t,” Williams said. “We’ll continue to do what we’ve been doing, see how it goes.”
>>> Shortstop Ian Desmond missed Wednesday’s loss to the Braves to rest his tight lower back and third baseman Anthony Rendon sat out with an illness. Williams expects Desmond will return Thursday in New York, but Rendon may miss another day.
“We’ll have to take a look at Anthony,” Williams said. “He really didn’t feel well today. We’ll see how he is, certainly after the train ride and when he gets to the ballpark tomorrow. Today, he was pretty bad. He slept most of the game. They gave him some medicine and he drank a lot of fluids.”