- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 6, 2014

For nearly 15 seconds, Rafael Soriano stood in the grass at the edge of the pitching mound with his hands on his hips, staring blankly at right field.

The Nationals’ closer had been entrusted with a three-run lead that was now gone. Manager Matt Williams already was climbing the dugout steps, about to remove him from the game. And the shocked silence at Nationals Park had quickly been replaced by boos, which rang in Soriano’s ears.

Soriano faced five batters and surrendered two home runs Friday night, blowing his second straight save as the Nationals dropped their series-opener against the Philadelphia Phillies, 9-8, in 11 innings.

He gave up a two-run shot to Carlos Ruiz that barely cleared the left-field fence, then a solo homer to Ben Revere, who had only hit one homer in his previous 1,933 major league plate appearances.

After the game, Williams was asked if he is considering making a change in the closer role.

“Well, we’ll address it, yeah,” Williams said. “We need to address it. The workload for the bullpen over the last couple of days has been huge, so we’ll have to work our way through it. But yeah, we need to address it.”

Soriano has struggled for the better part of two months, but especially so in recent weeks. Before the all-star break, the 34-year-old allowed 19 hits and four earned runs in 37 innings of work, resulting in a 0.97 earned-run average. Since the break, he has allowed 27 hits and 15 runs in 19 1/3 innings, resulting in a 6.98 ERA.

“That be my job in the ninth and right now, it not be too easy to do,” Soriano said. “I have to do it better. I got to figure out what’s going on right now and do it better.”

After watching a lead slip away in Game 5 of the 2012 National League Division Series, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo signed Soriano to two-year, $28 million contract with a team option for 2015.

In the two years since, Soriano has recorded 74 saves but also wasted 13 opportunities, including a career- and major-league high seven blown saves this season. Five of those blown saves have occurred since the all-star break.

“We’ve got confidence in everybody on our club, but Sori’s been struggling a little bit,” Williams said. “So we’ll have to look to land him a little softer maybe for a few days and see where we’re at.”

Erratic fastball command has typically been the problem for Soriano during this rough stretch, but his breaking ball was the culprit Friday. He threw six sliders in the ninth inning and two of them landed in the seats.

Soriano planned to watch some tape and talk with pitching coach Steve McCatty on Saturday to try to pinpoint the problem. He said he feels healthy and has not noticed any glaring issues with his mechanics.

“I got to throw bullpen and something that [McCatty] can see,” Soriano said. “We’ll figure it out.”

Williams said he would talk to Soriano on Saturday and address his role as the closer then. Should the first-year manager decide to make a change, he would have no shortage of options.

Drew Storen, whose blown save in the 2012 playoffs likely contributed to Rizzo’s pursuit of Soriano, has 56 career saves and a 1.37 ERA this season. Tyler Clippard has 34 career saves and has long been one of the league’s most reliable relievers. Recent acquisition Matt Thornton also has some experience in the closer’s role.

“I’m not going to let you guys know exactly what’s going to happen right now, but we have guys that have done it, so we have multiple options. I can give you that,” Williams said. “Depends on who’s available, who’s fresh, who’s not. But we have multiple options, which is a good thing for us. Guys who have been there before.”

While Williams certainly did not give a ringing endorsement of Soriano’s recent performance, several players in the clubhouse expressed confidence in their closer.

Bryce Harper said “he’s been doing a heck of a job this year.” Denard Span called him “our guy.” And Adam LaRoche compared Soriano’s struggles to his own.

“It’s really easy through a short stretch to second guess what somebody is doing,” LaRoche said. “I’ve got a pretty good track record and when I go for two or three weeks like I’ve never swung a bat before, it’s easy to second guess: ‘Should somebody else be in there, should we give him a break, should we platoon him?’ Or whatever it is. That’s pretty natural. I think this will pass and nobody will think twice about it.”

LaRoche left Friday’s game early to rest his ailing back and elbow and said he spoke with Soriano in the clubhouse after he was removed from the game. From LaRoche’s perspective, Soriano’s confidence remains high. But it is unclear how the right-hander would handle a demotion, especially after spending most of the past six seasons as a closer with the Braves, Rays, Yankees and Nationals.

“I know that be my job and I supposed to do it,” Soriano said. “At the same time, I feel bad tonight because we lost. What I have to say? Come back tomorrow and be ready and see what happens.”

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