Rafael Soriano took the mound in the ninth inning last night looking for save no.20 of 2014 with a one-run lead over the Colorado Rockies. Washington's 34-year-old closer retired the first two batters he faced, throwing a 93 mph 1-2 fastball by Corey Dickerson and getting a hard hit liner to first from Ryan Wheeler that Nationals' first baseman Adam LaRoche handled.
Then things got interesting.
Throwing nothing but 92-94 mph fastballs to Rockies' catcher Michael McKenry, whose three-run home run provided the only runs only runs the visiting team scored in the series finale in D.C., Soriano fell behind 3-1 and eventually issued a two-out walk to put the tying run on in what was a 4-3 game in the Nationals' favor.
Colorado second baseman DJ LeMahieu fell behind 0-2, but singled to right on an 87 mph slider, sending McKenry's pinch runner, Charlie Culberson, around to third.
Soriano threw two 94 mph heaters to pinch hitter Josh Rutledge that missed, falling behind 2-0, but Rutledge missed the next fastball, another 94 mph offering and fouled off a 2-1 four-seamer that once again came in at 94. Rutledge managed to foul off a 2-2 slider, and Soriano missed with a second breaking ball to go to a full count, then came back with one more 94 mph fastball that popped Rutledge up to end the game and earn him save no.20 in 22 opportunities in 2014.
Ian Desmond, watching Soriano from his position at short, said he was comfortable throughout the 26-pitch frame that ended with the tying run 90 ft from home. After two years of watching Soriano close out games, Desmond said he's learned to admire the right-hander's approach. With that unique perspective, the Nats' shortstop said he's finally started to figure out that every pitch the 13-year veteran throws has a purpose.
"I think watching on tv or watching from the stands, his misses, people take those as uncalculated," Desmond said, "but he knows exactly what he's doing and exactly where he wants to put the ball. And he executes a lot. Kind of like [Livan Hernandez], I've started to kind of learn how his sequences are and stuff like that and I've got 100% confidence every time he takes the mound."
Doug Fister, who earned his seventh win of the season when Soriano recorded the last out, said he was impressed with Soriano's preparedness and durability.
"He's a guy that you know he's going to be ready every day," Fister explained. "Whether we're playing a doubleheader, it doesn't matter, he's ready for every game and no matter what it comes down to we've got confidence in his abilities and what he does and know that he's going to go out there and get the job done."
Through 34 appearances this season, in the second year of the 2-year/$28M deal he signed with the Nats, Soriano has put up a 1.06 ERA with a 2.57 FIP, 11 walks (2.91 BB/9) and 32 Ks (8.47 K/9) in 34 IP in which he's held opposing hitters to a .158/.232/.237 line.
And about that velocity? Soriano's averaged 91 mph with his fastball so far in 2014, down from 91.4 last season, 92.3 in 2012, 92.8 in 2011 and 93.4 in 2010, but last night, and in recent weeks, he's been back up in the 93-94 mph range. He averaged 93 mph on the 22 fastballs he threw to the Rockies' hitters.
"I think he's fresh," Nats' skipper Matt Williams said when asked about the uptick in velocity. "I think he feels good. You'll see the 90-91 cutter from time-to-time, slider in the mid-to-high 80s, but tonight he felt good. He's fresh and had some days off and hasn't been used a lot. I would imagine that if he's two of three days in a row it's not quite that, but he's throwing the ball really well."