- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 16, 2014

ATLANTA — No visible baggage trailed Rafael Soriano when he jogged in from the bullpen Monday night.

The Nationals led 4-0, an edge that seemed more extreme than just four runs considering the withering Atlanta Braves were the opponent. Quickly, it was reduced and manager Matt Williams was calling for Drew Storen, the non-closer, to close the game.

Soriano left with his head down. He has lost the ability to get outs, becoming a rusty nail on the Nationals’ road to a division title. He last saved a game Sept. 1. It’s been Storen since.

Yet, there still was not title commitment from Williams after the game Monday night. He wouldn’t specify Storen as the closer. After consecutive days of work, he didn’t know what Storen’s availability would be Tuesday night, which could lead to another reliever closing. What then, he asked.

It’s a battle of semantics occurring at an odd time of the season. In most situations, the team vying for the National League’s best record is not also replacing its closer in September. But, that’s where the Nationals find themselves.

Soriano has struggled since July, when his ERA was 5.40. It dipped to 4.38 in August before ballooning to 10.13 in September, resulting in the loss of his position as closer.

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Monday night, his pitches were again up in the strike zone and flat.

“Just [need] continue to work on mechanics and getting that ball down,” Williams said.

The Nationals are not the first team to head toward the playoffs while handling a late-season closer change. Though, it’s rare to do so because of performance as opposed to injury.

Each 2013 World Series participant went through a closer change. Koji Uehara dominated after taking over for the Boston Red Sox last season in late June when multiple closer options were injured. His ERA was 1.09 and WHIP a stunning 0.57. Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal had more postseason saves (four) than he did regular-season saves (three) last season.

Rosenthal took over for Edward Mujica, who, like Soriano, lost it in September. Opponents hit .514 against Mujica last September. In came Rosenthal. Mujica, who saved 37 games in 2013, was a replacement himself. Expected closer Jason Motte needed Tommy John surgery, bumping both Rosenthal and Mujica back an inning with their roles.

The Nationals have the benefit of multiple closer options, something Williams keeps pointing out. Matt Thornton, Tyler Clippard and Storen have all been closers, if for a brief time in Thornton’s case. Even left-handed specialist Jerry Blevins has two career saves.

Thornton has just 23 saves in his 11 years in the league. Though, that’s sufficient for Williams to look at him as a “closer” option. No matter his role, when the call comes to get loose, Thornton gets loose. He also expects that of teammates.

“It’s part of being a good teammate to accept a temporary demotion or a demotion, period,” Thornton said. “That’s what the manager and coaching staff feels is best for the team. It’s not the time of year to pout about stuff. I think everyone here is fine with whatever they decide.”

Storen has the ninth-inning summonings, if not the label. Storen had 43 saves in 2011. Prior to the 2012 season, he had surgery to remove a bone chip from his elbow. He’s only had 13 saves since, including converting five consecutive opportunities since Sept. 7.

Part of Storen’s 2014 success is a result of tinkering during his rehabilitation that brought his changeup into the mix. He’s mastered his version of a circle changeup this season — a pitch he throws to left- and right-handed batters — and increased its use. Last season, Storen threw a changeup 9.7 percent of the time, which was then a career-high. This year, he’s thrown it 18.4 percent of the time. Opponents are hitting .233 against Storen’s changeup this season, according to Brooksbaseball.net.

Label or not, the Nationals will try to ride the that changeup, and closer change, through the playoffs.

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