The record crowd at Nationals Park received its first glimpse at the Washington Nationals’ newfangled bullpen and its intimindating, eccentric closer when Rafael Soriano emerged in the bottom of the ninth with a 2-0 lead on the Miami Marlins.
A song with a Latin beat, written about him by a friend in the Dominican Republic, blared through the stadium speakers as Soriano ran to the mound. The highest-paid reliever in baseball performed his usual, peculiar pre-pitching routine — drawing a line behind the rubber with his pointer finger and staring into his hat after warming up. The results were utterly dominating, sitting down the heart of the Marlins order with 11 picture-perfect pitches for his first save, a far cry from his unspectacular spring.
“Everything went well,” Soriano said afterward in his normal, nonchalant demeanor. “I’m excited to be on this team and everything went well.”
The Nationals signed Soriano, 33, to a two-year, $28 million deal over the winter to bolster the team’s strong but not mighty bullpen. He changed the complexion of the bullpen, pushing presumptive setup man Tyler Clippard and closer Drew Storen up an inning. On a team with dreams of a deep playoff run, he had the experienced pedigree to handle high pressure, having saved 42 games for the New York Yankees last season and pitched in the playoffs three times.
Before Soriano could enter the game, Manager Davey Johnson turned to Clippard, not Storen, to pitch the eighth inning. Johnson reasoned that Clippard’s better numbers against the Marlins’ best pinch-hitter, Greg Dobbs, would be better served for the situation. Clippard, who had perhaps the best spring of any pitcher, entered for the eighth, tempered the early command issues attributed to adrenaline and tossed a scoreless inning to set up Soriano’s debut.
Soriano punched up an 8.10 ERA in only seven spring training innings, within the range he set with Johnson before spring training games started. His spring arrival was delayed by six days because of a visa issue and later slowed by a root canal. Pitching coach Steve McCatty had wanted Soriano to squeeze in a few more outings before the season. But Soriano’s debut performance showed that after 11 seasons and 132 saves in the major leagues, he knows exactly what he needs to do to prepare his body and arm.
“Spring training is useless,” Soriano said. “You throw because you have to throw and to get ready. But it’s another world from here.” Once the regular season begins, Soriano said his focus and performance sharpens with the adrenaline and high stakes. “When the season and challenges are harder and different, that’s what I like,” he added.
“He marches to the beat of his own drummer,” starter Dan Haren said. “He’s a little intimidating. He earns his respect on the mound. He did it in the heat of the hardest place you could do it: New York, following Mariano [Rivera].”
Soriano induced a flyout from Juan Pierre on the second pitch of the inning. He painted the corners of the strike zone, moving in and out, against Chris Coghlan, striking him out on four pitches. Against slugger Giancarlo Stanton, who has feasted on Nationals pitching throughout his career, Soriano struck him out looking with a fastball that cut down and away on the outside corner.
“The ball for him moved a lot,” catcher Wilson Ramos said. “All the pitches moved a lot. When they go to make a swing, the ball moves. That freezes them. I’m excited to catch him.”
And, in typical fashion after the save, Soriano made the sign of the cross, pointed to the sky, slapped his glove and forcefully untucked his jersey, a sign of having completed a day’s work. Soriano wouldn’t elaborate on the meaning of his pitching routine. “It’s something personal,” he said with a smile.
“Obviously, spring training is overrated,” Johnson said. “He certainly turned it up a notch and made nothing but quality pitches. He was outstanding.”