Saturday September 6th, 2014

It's a sight that Nationals fans have grown tired of seeing in the last month: Rafael Soriano, looking dejected and downright angry on the mound, as another lead slips away in the late innings.

On Friday night, Washington's closer came into the ninth inning of the Nationals' game against the Phillies with a 7-4 lead and facing the bottom half of Philadelphia's order, seemingly set for an easy save. But a single by Domonic Brown and a two-run homer by Carlos Ruiz quickly trimmed that advantage to a single run. Soriano got Maikel Franco to ground out and pinch-hitter Cody Asche to strike out, leaving only one batter between him and his 32nd save: Light-hitting Ben Revere.

Though Revere has been on a tear as of late -- he's hit .370 in the last week -- he's certainly no threat to tie the game with one swing, coming into Friday's action with just one home run ever in 1,929 major league plate appearances. And yet, on a 2-2 count, Revere took a flat, belt-high Soriano slider and sent it screaming into the rightfield bleachers at Nationals Park for his second homer of the year.

Revere's belief-defying home run aside, this is nothing new for Soriano. In his last 17 appearances covering 15 1/3 innings, Soriano has now allowed 11 runs, 10 earned, to go with three homers and five walks. He's now given up runs in four of his last five appearances and has pitched a clean inning just three times in his last 13 outings. Friday's effort is his third blown save since Aug. 17 and second this week, coming on the heels of a Wednesday appearance against the Dodgers where he spoiled a 3-2 lead in the ninth (with the help of a Jayson Werth error in right). Overall, since the All-Star break, Soriano has allowed opposing hitters to bat .308/.375/.449 with a .383 batting average on balls in play, compared to a .153/.222/.226 line in the season's first half.

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What's strange about Soriano's struggles is that his peripherals this season are far more in line with 2012's brilliance with the Yankees than last year's roller-coaster struggle with the Nationals. His strikeout-per-nine ratio is 8.8, a far cry better than 2013's 6.9 mark. Though his walk rate has spiked to 2.9 from last year's 2.3, it's still better than the 3.2 in 2012 with New York.

Furthermore, Soriano has cut his home-run-per-nine rate almost in half from 2012 and '13, and his .279 batting average on balls in play is right in line with his career mark of .257. He's even giving up less hard contact than before, with a line-drive rate of 16.9 percent, his lowest since 2010, and has upped his swinging-strike rate to a whopping 13.2 percent.

Looking at Soriano's pitch selection, however, you can see that he's made a big change to his approach in 2014. Last season, Soriano went mostly to his four-seam fastball, throwing it 72 percent of the time, working in the occasional two-seamer (12 percent) and slider (16 percent). This year, Soriano has upped his reliance on his slider, throwing it nearly twice as often as he did in 2013; he now throws four-seamers 64 percent of the time, sliders 29 percent and rarely goes to his sinker. What's so odd about that is the slider was by far Soriano's worst pitch in 2013; opposing hitters batted .297 with a .531 slugging percentage on the pitch last year, compared to a .241/.319 line on his fastball. That's continued to be the case this year, as batters have a .160/.198 mark against Soriano's four-seamer, but a .241/.342 line on his slider.

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That slider has also become a more prominent weapon against lefthanders, who beat up Soriano last year to the tune of a .785 OPS against. Whereas in 2013 he set lefties up with his sinker, then used either his four-seamer or slider to put them away, Soriano has almost entirely ditched the two-seam fastball against southpaws, upping his slider usage against them. The same is true against righthanders; Soriano has de-emphasized his four-seamer against same-side batters and instead used his slider as a setup and put-away pitch. For the most part, that strategy seems to have worked, with lefthanders now OPSing only .579 against Soriano. But the wholesale revamping of his arsenal is an odd move for a veteran closer, and it's worth nothing that both home runs Soriano allowed on Friday came on sliders.

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Repertoire change or no, it seems likely that what Soriano is going through is simply a slump; despite the poor results over the last month, his velocity remains unchanged. But it couldn't come at a worse time for Washington, which is all of the sudden experiencing serious late-inning issues between Soriano and setup man Tyler ClippardAlong with Soriano's recent bad run, Clippard has also been getting beat up, blowing saves in three of his last eight appearances and taking a loss in another. In the same game against the Dodgers that Soriano blew in the ninth, Clippard gave up a game-tying two-run home run to Carl Crawford in the 12th.

The Nationals eventually won that game, and luckily for them, they've been largely able to get past the troubles of their late-inning pair, but that wasn't the case on Friday. Given new life by Revere's homer, the Phillies went on to score twice in the 11th off Craig Stammen and Jerry Blevins, including an RBI single by Revere. The Nationals rallied to steal a run back in the bottom of that frame, but it wasn't enough in the 9-8 loss. And though the defeat didn't cost Washington any ground in the NL East race -- the Nationals remain seven up on the Braves after Atlanta's 11-3 loss to the Marlins -- the team has to be kicking itself for blowing a shot at widening that gap even more. After all, six games still remain between the Braves and Nationals on the season, and Atlanta boasts a 9-4 record against Washington this year, and 22-10 if you include 2013.

The Nationals can go a long way toward erasing the chance of a big Atlanta comeback by taking care of business against the rest of their division foes. But if Soriano keeps scuffling, Washington's fans will be spending a lot of time in September looking just as upset as their erratic closer.

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