- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 15, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Washington Nationals fans should welcome closer Rafael Soriano with open arms when the Nationals return home Friday for a three-game series with the New York Mets, despite Soriano blowing a save on their six-game road trip.

After all, it was his first blown save since last season — Aug. 17, 2013, to be specific — when he blew a 3-1 lead to the Oakland Athletics Saturday on the way to a 4-3 Nationals loss.

Let’s get more specific — it was the first run he gave up in his last 25 innings pitched. So a little love from the hometown crowd might be in order to let them know that they recognize what their beloved closer had accomplished, and that one run every 25 innings is more than acceptable.

Except they can’t open their arms when they see Rafael Soriano enter a game. They’re too busy covering their eyes.

And beloved? Not hardly. More like tolerated.

“Bad day,” Soriano told reporters after the game. “That’s all I have to say. I cannot be perfect every time.”

He’s not warm and cuddly, which also may make it hard to welcome him back with open arms, and that may be through no fault of his own.

But it’s not that Nationals fans don’t feel connected to their team’s closer. Their connection is anxiety.

MASN analyst Ray Knight said after Soriano saved the Nationals’ 6-5 comeback win against the Diamondbacks in Arizona on Monday that the closer makes him nervous, even though he got his eighth save of the season. He allowed one base runner, and there’s the rub.

He makes everyone sweat, when everyone wants to feel secure, safe — saved, so to speak.

Closer is the most complicated position on the roster — for everyone, the manager and the fans.

“Going into the ninth with a two-run lead with a guy that hasn’t given up a run in 25 innings and it doesn’t happen for you, it’s disappointing, but that’s baseball,” Nationals manager Matt Williams told reporters after the blown save.

It’s not that easy for fans, either.

The closer, by definition, is there to save the game. He makes a grand entrance that everyone in the ballpark watches, coming in from the bullpen with that one responsibility.

Everyone else on the roster is there to contribute to a win, even the starting pitcher, who gets credited with a quality start these days, giving his team a chance to win.

There is just one guy who the manager hands the ball to and says, “Here — save the game for us.”

That responsibility and profile often means the closer is among the most beloved — or reviled — players on the team.

When the Montreal Expos came to Washington and became the Nationals, closer Chad Cordero was possibly the most beloved player in town — even though he made everyone nervous as well. He had an outstanding 2005 inaugural season, saving 47 games, when this town fell in love with a team that competed for a postseason spot until the last month of the season.

He went on to save 29 and 37 games the next two seasons, while the team struggled, and saw his career end in 2008 with shoulder surgery. He is still beloved.

Drew Storen was a second-year reliever who saved 43 games in 2011 and became one of the team’s most popular and beloved players. And even though he blew the biggest game in the Nationals’ short history in Game 5 of the NL division series against the St. Louis Cardinals the following year, he is still a very popular figure — probably more than the guy who took his job when he signed as a free agent in 2013 season, even though Soriano saved 43 games as well.

It is a strange, emotional connection for a pitcher who comes in to pitch one inning and face, if ultimately successful, just three batters. Mariano Rivera retired after 19 seasons and 652 saves as one of the most beloved players of his time, by both Yankees fans and opponents. Some suggested Rivera may have been the greatest Yankee of all time.

Whitey Ford won 236 games and lost just 106 in 498 starts for the Yankees over 16 seasons. He started 22 World Series games and won 10 of them, with seven of those the kind of games that no one had to come in to save — complete games. Yet Rivera holds a more beloved place in the world of Yankees. That may obviously be because what he accomplished is much more recent, But still — Whitey Ford won 236 games for the Yankees. Come on now.

Soriano may never hold a place in the hearts of Nationals fans, unless he has the sort of postseason dramatic moment that attaches itself to a closer, the kind that defined Rivera’s career. He likely won’t be here long enough, in the second year of a two-year deal.

But for now, take your hands away from your eyes and show a little love for the 34-year-old Dominican closer who untucks his jersey after every save. He’s telling you to relax.

Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com

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