Commentary

Fortune finally shines on Soriano

As D-Rob goes down, usually sullen Sori champing at the bit as Yanks' new closer

Updated: May 16, 2012, 1:02 AM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

BALTIMORE -- The "Accidental Closer" did not get to pitch for the Yankees on Tuesday night, but his night will come. And believe it, he cannot wait.

Rafael Soriano, who has been a withdrawn, sometimes glowering presence in the Yankees' clubhouse since arriving here last season, was approachable and even, by his standards, chatty before the game against the Orioles at Camden Yards, and with good reason.

For the first time in his brief Yankees career, Soriano has the job he wants, the one he came here to do, even if he had to go along with the plan when he signed his ridiculously generous three-year, $35 million contract in January 2011, the plan that called for the closer who had led the American League in saves the season before to remake himself as a middle reliever.

[+] EnlargeRafael Soriano
William Perlman/The Star-Ledger/US PresswireIt's nothing personal, but things are suddenly looking up for new Yankees closer Rafael Soriano.

But for the time being -- and for who knows how long -- Soriano is free of the purgatory of middle relief and the humiliation of mop-up duty.

By sheer attrition alone -- first, the season-ending knee injury suffered by Mariano Rivera two weeks ago, and then, the strained oblique, an injury of indeterminate severity, suffered by David Robertson this past Friday -- Soriano is about to find himself exactly where he wants to be.

On the mound in the ninth inning, with the game on the line and the baseball in his hand.

"I love it. Love it," Soriano said, his normally downcast eyes showing the merest trace of delight.

Although it was hardly a secret, Soriano admitted he never could quite warm up to the task of babysitting a game in which the margin was three runs, four runs, five runs. Something about the lack of suspense translated to a lack of adrenaline and, by extension, a lack of results.

But send him out there in a one-run game, and, he said, "That's when I got my number. That makes me feel more better, when I face the 3, 4, 5 hitters. Everybody can see it. Whatever happens, happens, and we come back next day, try to do it again. That's what I like."

Soriano never got to walk that tightrope Tuesday night, since the Yankees trailed all night. CC Sabathia was off his feed, and the offense couldn't get anything going against Baltimore starter Wei-Yin Chen. The mop-up duty was left to Freddy Garcia. No closer was necessary.

But you can make the argument that for the past 15 years, the most important player on the Yankees' roster has been their closer, and there will be plenty more nights this season when the closer will be the most important man on the field.

And for as long as it takes Robertson's aching side to heal, that man will be Rafael Soriano.

It was quite accidental, Soriano's ascendancy to the role he believes he was born to play, especially coming off a disappointing first season with the Yankees in which he showed he had a lot to learn about the team and the city in which it plays.

But Soriano seems to have learned something -- his entire interview session Tuesday afternoon kept circling back to the same central theme, which is team first, individual second -- and yet, there was no hiding the fact that while much of Yankeeland might have plunged into mourning over Robertson's injury, Soriano clearly sees it as a golden opportunity.

Nothing personal -- he lockers close to Robertson, and the two seem to get along well -- but when the news came down Tuesday afternoon that the new closer was out and the new-new closer was in, it seemed as if Soriano's whole demeanor changed.

For the first time in his Yankees tenure, he seemed comfortable, even happy with his surroundings. He looked people in the eye. He chatted with reporters. He smiled and even laughed a few times.

After all, when he signed his sweetheart deal, it was with the expectation that he would serve as the setup man for Rivera in preparation for replacing him as the closer after Mo's retirement.

The Yankees even made sure they lockered next to one another in spring training, hoping that some of Mo's magic would rub off on Soriano. But for most of last spring, Soriano isolated himself, staring either into his locker or at his smartphone, absorbed in the sound coming out of his headset.

And soon into Soriano's first season as a Yankee, Robertson leapfrogged him, taking over the eighth-inning role and relegating Soriano to one less-vital inning earlier in the game, a marginalized role that no doubt stung. For a while, he was a member of the mix-and-match crew manager Joe Girardi used to get through the sixth inning, and who knows? If Joba Chamberlain hadn't torn up his elbow, perhaps Soriano would still be there, a part as interchangeable and indistinguishable as a Cory Wade or a Clay Rapada or a Cody Eppley.

But to his credit, Soriano accepted his role, even if he never quite embraced it, and this season he has pitched as well as any reliever on the staff, including Robertson.

And unlike Robertson, who is one-up, one-down in save opportunities, Soriano has handled his two closing opportunities flawlessly. As spectacular as Robertson can be, he also can be a thrill ride that sometimes leaves the rails. By comparison, Soriano is steady, is reliable, rarely walks anyone, gets plenty of strikeouts and can pretty much go every night.

Even though David Robertson as closer seemed like a fabulous idea in theory -- and might still turn out to be in practice -- Rafael Soriano as closer actually has a history and a track record.

"It happened for me before," Soriano said of his success as Tampa Bay's closer in 2010. "It's the same division. I had a lot of saves when I [faced] Baltimore, when I [faced] the Yankees. And to me, that's what I put in my mind. It will be same as I did before."

For the longest time, it seemed Soriano did not know the name of his manager -- through most of his first season, he referred to Joe Girardi as "that guy" -- and I am still convinced he does not know the name of the pitching coach, because I have never heard him refer to Larry Rothschild as anything but "the pitching coach."

But no matter. He does know how to get the last three outs of a ballgame, and not even the Great Rivera was ever able to talk his way through a ninth inning.

"Everybody I think knows what I can do in the ninth," Soriano said. "Sometimes it's not easy, because the people think it's not what I did in Tampa, it's different and everything. But I know what I got, and everybody knows what I have, what I can do. I'm looking forward to it."

For the first time, the Accidental Closer sounded like a man with a purpose.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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