First-year manager Matt Williams was asked this spring what kind of weapon he thought he had in Washington Nationals' closer Rafael Soriano, the 34-year-old, 13-year veteran who signed a 2-year/$28M deal with the Nats before the 2013 campaign. In his first season in the nation's capital, Soriano saved 43 games, posting a 3.11 ERA, a 3.65 FIP, 17 walks (2.30 BB/9) and 51 Ks (6.89 K/9) in 66 2/3 IP over which he gave up seven home runs (0.95 HR/9) and was worth +0.5 fWAR.
Soriano's fastball velocity dropped for a fourth-straight season from an average of 93.5 mph in 2009 to 91.4 mph average in 2013. His K/9 dropped to 6.89 K/9 from a career mark of 9.15 K/9.
After blowing a career-high sixth save on August 17th, however, Soriano went on a run as the Nationals challenged for a Wild Card spot and played their best baseball of the season down the stretch. Soriano was a perfect 12 for 12 in save opportunities over that stretch, giving up just 14 hits, two runs and four walks (2.34 BB/9), while recording 13 Ks (7.63 K/9) in his final 15 1/3 IP over which he held opposing hitters to a .241/.290/.310 line.
So how did Williams see the closer he inherited?
"A guy that knows how to close games," Williams told reporters. "He's somebody that's willing to take the ball at any point. That loves to close them. That has the ability to do that and wants a ball when that situation is presented. So, again, I like the way he's worked this spring. I like his work ethic. He's been aggressive in his bullpen sessions and he's ready to go."
Williams admitted that he didn't see enough of Soriano's work in the nation's capital in 2013 to judge him on his first season with the Nationals, but he was familiar enough with the reliever's work to know he can get the job done in the ninth.
"I don't know him from last year," Williams said. "There's no reference point for me other than I've seen him work and he works hard. That's what I think we've got. I think that's what stares me in the face. He's a guy that knows how to close games, has had success doing it and is ready to take the ball at any point."
Williams got his first up-close look at Soriano as the Nationals' manager in the ninth inning of Sunday afternoon's win over the Braves. The first two outs were stress-free as the Nats' right-hander retired Dan Uggla (swinging K) and Gerald Laird (pop to foul territory off first) on just nine pitches. Then things got "interesting."
Braves' shortstop Andrelton Simmons reached on an infield single. Ryan Doumit hit a sharp grounder to second for the second straight infield hit. With the tying run on second base, Jason Heyward stepped in against the Nats' closer and worked the count full before finally striking out on a full-count slider, a pitch Soriano threw just 15.5% of the time last season, essentially putting it away when he couldn't get a feel for it, after throwing it 40.1% of the time in 2012.
Williams was asked after the 22-pitch save by his closer, if he was surprised Soriano (who worked on getting his slider back this spring) threw the pitch (which was up in the zone) to a slugger like Heyward in that situation.
"I couldn't tell you the number of times, but I'm sure he's been in that situation before, so he's got confidence in all of his pitches," Williams said.
Was he nervous at all watching Soriano work in the ninth?
"Never," he said with a smile. "Never. He's been around the block a couple of times, so he knows what he's doing out there. You get the feeling that if he didn't get Heyward then he was okay with going after B.J. [Upton] too. He doesn't panic, his heart rate never gets up, so, he would want it clean, for sure. But he knows what he's doing."
Fans in Nationals Park might not have shared Williams' confidence. But Soriano got the job done, untucked his jersey and notched his 44th save for the Nationals.