Rafael Soriano was not the Yankees first choice—or second choice—to close games this season in the Bronx, but he's sure become their savior in the bullpen. The enigmatic veteran from the Dominican Republic has been lights out since taking over the closer role.
Thanks to a season-ending injury to all-galaxy closer, Mariano Rivera, and a multi-week disabled list stint for Dave Robertson, Soriano has become the top man in the Yankees bullpen. He's also back to being one of the best relievers in the game.
Soriano has saved 24 of his 25 games this season, restoring manager Joe Girardi's faith in him and boosting the confidence that the team has in the back-end of their bullpen. The Yankees sit in first place, thanks in large part to their home run-bopping lineup and much-improved starting pitching.
However, in place of Rivera, Soriano has anchored the Bombers' 'pen with a quiet, unwavering confidence and swagger. He boasts a nasty arsenal of pitches that features a low-to-mid 90's fastball, devastating slider and change-up.
Rafael Soriano led the American League with 45 saves less than two years ago, in 2010, and showed the moxie and determination that earned him a whopping $30 million contract with the Yankees. There's no doubt New York overpaid for Soriano's services, but for a team that has the benefit of caring a little bit less about large outlays than every other baseball club, the investment has paid off handsomely in 2012.
This season was believed to be the possible swan song for Yankees great and future hall of famer, Mariano Rivera, who was expected to ride off into the sunset following another charge at a sixth World Series title. A freak injury on May 3rd while shagging fly balls in the outfield of Kauffman Stadium—in Kansas City of all places—changed the course of the Yankees season.
Rivera tore his ACL and was ruled out for the season, following surgery. Rivera is expected to return in 2013, though, incredibly, he's made it his goal to come back this season. Knowing his legendary work ethic, he should not be doubted and will likely return in top form when he's ready.
Immediately following Rivera's injury, Soriano's value rose significantly for the Yankees. The feeling at the time was that the stellar Dave Robertson would step into the closer role. That only lasted for a few games, before Robertson blew a save and then succumbed to injury. Then there was no question that Soriano was the man to close out games in the Bronx.
Soriano is a curious figure, a man who can look disinterested and aloof at times and seems to do so precious little to embrace the fans and his teammates. He's a Major League Baseball rolling stone— now with his fourth team—a player who was largely viewed as someone only desiring to go to the highest bidder.
Following the 2010 season, when he entered free agency, the low-budget Tampa Bay Rays knew they had no chance to resign him for the price tag he was aiming to fetch. The Yankees ownership, of course, was happy to oblige to his request of $10 million per year, for three guaranteed years, to be a set-up man; an unheard of sum for a late-inning reliever, sans the title of closer.
Before he begins each stint on the mound, Soriano is seen, seemingly reading the inside of his cap, though no one is quite sure exactly what he's doing. Even he won't fess up. His end-of-game routine involves a stoic look, as he quickly untucks his jersey, yanking it out from his pants. He then embraces the Yankees catcher and begins his procession to the end of the hand-shaking line.
This routine has become quite familiar to both the Yankees and opponents alike. The 32-year-old veteran saved 11 of the Bombers' 20 games in the month of June, helping the Yankees to the best record in baseball during the month.
Fans and the media alike have been slow to accept Soriano as one of their own-a New York Yankee. There's always been reluctance, at first, among Yankees fans to warm to a player that has come in with high expectations and a fat contract to justify them. Just ask former pitchers AJ Burnett, Randy Johnson and Carl Pavano.
New York fans know their baseball and are more dedicated followers of the homegrown products; and of course those free agents that ingratiate themselves to the fans and produce. While Soriano may never do the former, he's more than delivering on the latter in 2012.
Soriano blew three saves in 2011, lost three games and had the highest WHIP of his career, since becoming a full-time reliever, at 1.42. His ERA also shot all the way up to 4.12. He seemed uneasy in the set-up role, particularly after enjoying so much success in his three-year stint with the Atlanta Braves and his dynamic one year run with the Rays.
Soriano twice won the monthly DHL Delivery Man Award, for the top reliever in May and July, that season, and bolstered the back-end of the Rays pitching staff.
The injuries to Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte will provide a real test to the resolve and mettle of the New York Yankees. The Yankees are relying on their brawny bats to carry them to their 17th postseason since 1995. Manager Joe Girardi and the Bombers will also need to heavily rely on their veteran closer to shut the door on the Yankees rivals this summer. Just not the one they expected at the beginning of the season.