For decades, major league pitchers were supposed to finish what they started. Relief pitchers were those who weren’t good enough to make the rotation, simple as that.
As time went on, a few pitchers, such as Washington’s Firpo Marberry, the New York Yankees’ Joe Page, Brooklyn’s Hugh Casey and the Philadelphia Phillies’ Jim Konstanty excelled in relief, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that every team began using players regularly in that capacity. The Sporting News first gave its “Fireman of the Year” awards in 1960. Saves became an official statistic nine years later.
In the four-plus decades since, the top relievers became known as closers and nine have won the Cy Young award as their league’s top pitcher. Konstanty (1950), Milwaukee’s Rollie Fingers (1981), Detroit’s Willie Hernandez (1984) and Oakland’s Dennis Eckersley (1992) have also been voted the Most Valuable Player. Fingers, Eckersley, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter and Hoyt Wilhelm are enshrined in Cooperstown.
Which brings to us the Nationals. After 25-year-old closer Drew Storen cost Washington a spot in the National League Championship Series last October with his ninth inning meltdown against St. Louis in the decisive game of the NL Division Series, general manager Mike Rizzo lured Rafael Soriano from the Yankees with a two-year, $22 million contract.
As spring training rolled on, manager Davey Johnson and pitching coach Steve McCatty decided to make Storen their seventh-inning man with 28-year-old former All-Star Tyler Clippard –- who filled the closer’s job superbly when Storen was on the disabled list for much of 2012 –- designated for the eighth and Soriano, of course, for the ninth.
While Storen struggled in his lesser role and the Nats underachieved, Clippard and Soriano were formidable past the season’s midway point.
In his first 39 games with Washington, Soriano pitched 38 innings, posted a 2.13 earned run average with 28 strikeouts while allowing just eight walks and two home runs. He recorded 24 saves and just three blown saves.
However, as the Nats desperately try to remain relevant –- 9-1/2 games out of the final playoff spot with just five weeks remaining –- Soriano has turned into a current version of former Baltimore reliever Mark “Kerosene” Thurmond. In other words, Washington brings Soriano into the game and the other team’s offense ignites.
In 13-1/3 innings during his 14 games dating to July 13, Soriano has been shelled to the tune of an 8.10 ERA. He has surrendered four homers and five walks while striking out 10. The 33-year-old Dominican has seven saves during that span but blew four others. And that ratio would be 6-to-5 if not for Denard Span’s diving, game-saving catch in deep center field last Thursday.
Even with Span’s defensive play of the year for the Nats, Soriano’s numbers in his last three appearances are like Storen’s nightmarish ninth against the Cardinals: six hits, six earned runs and two homers given up in just three innings of work.
This is Soriano’s fourth season as a closer and his eighth full year in the majors. He has been a closer for two division champions –- Tampa Bay (2010) and the Yankees (2012). Only nine active pitchers have more career saves than his 163. But his last few days have been atrocious.
So all of a sudden, Johnson and McCatty have a true dilemma in the bullpen, the area of the team that was supposed to be trouble-free. Storen’s confidence has to be shaky since he’s just back from a stint in the minors. Soriano has seemingly lost it. And every defeat moves Washington inexorably toward the bust half of the manager’s “World Series or bust” equation before this mega-disappointing season began.
It might seem crazy to mess with Clippard since he has been fantastic in the eighth — 6-2 record, 2.15 ERA, a nearly 3-to-1 strikeout/walk ratio and 25 holds in 55 appearances — but if the ninth is really where games are won, lost and saved, the Nats need to use their most reliable reliever then. Clippard has proven he can be a closer. He recorded 32 saves and just four blown ones last year. If three weeks ago was the right time to let Storen try to find himself at Class AAA Syracuse, now is the time for Soriano to take a break from being the closer and pitch under less pressured circumstances.
If Clippard falters, Storen or Soriano can get second chances. If Clippard does well, then the Nats have a happy problem to solve next spring when all three will report to Viera, Fla., looking to be No. 1.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin.