The Nationals came through with their sixth consecutive victory in extra innings on Sunday, their second walk-off win in less than 24 hours. This one, though, never should have made it that far.
Nationals closer Rafael Soriano had a 4-2 lead in the ninth inning before surrendering three runs for his fifth blown save of the season. That's just one off the career-high he set in 2013 and there are six weeks left to go.
The matter of which Soriano blew this one was especially ugly. His outing began with a hit-by-pitch and included a wild pitch to score a run before the big blow, a two-RBI double by Gregory Polanco to give the Pirates a 5-4 lead.
Soriano was then replaced by Matt Thornton as the fans at Nationals Park rained boos down on the veteran closer. Soriano understands the reaction from Nationals fans, as it comes with the job.
"I no do my job. What I have to say? Nothing," Soriano said. "I know I not do my job because I’m supposed to do it. Come back tomorrow and forget everything that happened today. I want to do my job and come back tomorrow and see what happens."
Soriano's teammate, Ian Desmond, took to Twitter after the win to defend his closer. Desmond called the boos "ridiculous."
Soriano has pitcher his butt off for us all year. I'd take him in the 9th any day of the week. All the booing tonight was ridiculous. — Ian Desmond (@IanDesmond20) August 18, 2014
Soriano compared the fan reaction to boos he heard when playing for the Yankees. New York fans are quick to let a player hear it if they don't like the results.
"I think the fans here not be the same fans in New York because I play two years in New York and it be more loud than that," he said.
Sunday was Soriano's fourth appearance in five games and the third time in his last four he's given up earned runs. The other two ended in saves, this one of course did not.
There's no question Soriano has been struggling lately and it has both the closer and his manager searching for answers.
"Every pitch that I throw, it be unbelievable. Never happen before like that," Soriano said. "I don’t think it be too good. The last three or four games I don’t be comfortable. It not be too easy for me. It happens sometimes."
"It’s just balls up in the strike zone over his last three or four, and over the middle of the plate. He hasn’t been able to command his slider either," Matt Williams added.
Williams, in fact, may reshuffle his bullpen a bit to get Soriano going again. That could mean using Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard or Matt Thornton to close on a given night to give Soriano some rest. He may also consider bringing Soriano in to pitch lower leverage situations, when allowed the opportunity.
The Nationals winning six games in a row - the most recent three by one run - is both good and bad for Soriano. On the one hand, it presents save opportunities. On the other hand, it does not afford him a chance to work through a slump without the game being on the line.
"The problem is with a bullpen guy, it’s difficult for him to work on it in the bullpen, because he’s going to be forced into action potentially the next day or that night," Williams said.
The Nats skipper later issued a vote of confidence for his closer.
"He’s been our closer all year, and I don’t see that changing as of right now," Williams said. "He’s been up a lot recently, pitching a lot of games, and hopefully the games don’t present themselves like that and we can give him some rest and give him a chance to cool down a little bit and kick back. It’s just been a little off, that’s all."