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Under radar, Soria a model of consistency

Castrovince: Soria excels under the radar

When you're the closer for the Kansas City Royals, you are baseball's answer to the Maytag repairman. The bullpen phone is fully functional, but it doesn't ring frequently for you.

But it is the inconsistency of Joakim Soria's workload that makes the consistency of his performance all the more impressive. The guy they call "The Mexicutioner" -- a nickname that might accurately depict Soria's emotionless efficiency but certainly runs counter to his non-threatening demeanor and pleasant personality -- might be the best pitcher in baseball that nobody's talking about.

That's the way it can be when your team doesn't win. The Royals, as has been well-documented, have done their fair share of losing, this year and in seasons past.

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When you're the closer in such a situation, you are pretty much helpless. Your livelihood, your spark, your enthusiasm for the job is ultimately and utterly dependent on those surrounding you. If the starter gets steamrolled or the lineup looks listless, well, no save for you.

Even converted saves can be construed as existential experiences. It's kind of like that "if tree falls in the woods" philosophy. Except, your 1-2-3 ninth is the tree, and Kauffman Stadium is the woods.

Yet here sits Soria, ranking second in the American League in saves, with 41. He has converted a franchise-record 34 consecutive save opportunities, his scoreless innings streak is at 21 2/3, his WHIP is at 1.04, his ERA at 1.58.

Just think about that first stat -- 41 saves. On a team that has won 63 games. Soria has closed out a ridiculous 65.1 percent of his team's wins. Should he somehow overtake the Rays' Rafael Soriano for the league saves lead in the season's final 10 days (Soriano has 43), he would become the first pitcher to lead the AL in saves outright while pitching for a team with a losing record since Dan Quisenberry did it for the Royals in 1983.

Talk about making the best of a bad situation.

"I couldn't even classify it as a great year," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "It's better than that. He's just been unbelievably good."

You might think the relative lack of work would bother the 26-year-old Soria, who should easily be sitting on 50 or more saves, given the way he's pitched. But when you remember all it took to even get him into this position of saving games for a Major League club and the faith the Royals showed in him when they took him from the Padres in the Rule 5 Draft, a year after he was biding his time in the Mexican League, you can comprehend his understanding.

"For my career, it's been awesome for me to pitch for this team," Soria said. "They have given me a lot of chances to save games. I love to be here, and I hope to stay here for the rest of my career."

It's difficult to know whether Soria will get his wish in that regard. Due to make $4 million next season and $6 million if the club picks up his 2012 option, Soria remains a relative bargain for the Royals, given the cost of closers. The club also has options on him for 2013 ($8 million) and '14 ($8.75 million).

At some point, though, the team will have to determine whether investing heavily in a closer is worth the price. Of course, if the rebuilding Royals ever get where they want to be in the AL Central standings, the matter will take care of itself. But they're certainly not there yet.

You wonder, though, where they'd be without Soria. For as difficult as the perpetual rebuilding might be, nothing demoralizes a team quite like losing a late lead. Soria rarely lets that happen, and that's been the case ever since he arrived -- seemingly out of nowhere -- in 2007.

By that point, the Dodgers and Padres had both already given up on Soria. Los Angeles signed him out of his native Mexico in 2002, only to cut him loose after he missed all of 2003 following reconstructive elbow surgery. After working his way back through the Mexican Minor Leagues, Soria was signed by San Diego in 2005, but most of his appearances that year came in the Mexican League.

Royals scout Louie Medina saw Soria pitching south of the border and thought he might be able to help. So the Royals picked him up in the Rule 5 Draft at the 2006 Winter Meetings, having no idea that they had just landed someone who would turn out to be one of the best closers in club history.

Soria saved 17 games in his rookie season, 42 in the Royals' 75-win 2008 season and 30 last year, despite being slowed by shoulder woes. The injury issues caused Soria rethinking his offseason conditioning, and he has responded with a healthy, successful campaign. An inordinately successful one, given the circumstances.

"I have the utmost confidence in him," Yost said. "My whole game plan revolves around getting him in the ninth inning and letting him have it. In the second, third or fourth inning, I'm thinking, 'What is it going to take to get to Soria in the ninth?' He's as comfortable a closer as I've ever had."

Staying comfortable can't be easy when you haven't had more than eight save opportunities in a given month. But Soria offers no complaint, only consistency.

"Everything in life is about consistency," he said. "Thank God, I've had good consistency my whole career. I hope to stay like that."

For now, he simply stays under the radar.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, CastroTurf. Follow @castrovince on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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