Soriano thriving in 'the moment' as closer

Soriano thriving in 'the moment' as closer

Soriano thriving in 'the moment' as closer
It is what Rafael Soriano calls "the moment," and the Yankees reliever wants you to know that he loves being there.

Game on the line, ninth inning, screaming crowd, all eyes on the mound -- it is a situation that can force even an experienced Major Leaguer to wilt under the pressure. Not Soriano, who savors pitching without a safety net.

"Oh yeah. That's what I like," Soriano said. "I like the moment to be like that. That's when I like to pitch."

Watched closely on Wednesday against the Angels, Soriano's entrance seemed more like a slow trudge, eschewing jogging in favor of a purposeful walk across the infield. He wore a nasty scowl as he arrived at the mound, where catcher Russell Martin had been waiting with a ball for a noticeably long time.

Soriano was not particularly dominant in his sixth save chance of the year, permitting a walk and an infield single, but he escaped a high-wire inning by shattering Mark Trumbo's bat on a 3-2 slider for out No. 27. Soriano untucked his jersey, his own personal celebration to acknowledge that "the moment" had passed.

"Any closer that has been a closer and has been successful probably is that way," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "He's never really came out and told me, and his demeanor is usually pretty much the same. He might show a little more emotion on the last out in the ninth inning, but he's pretty consistent in his demeanor. I'm not shocked that that's how it is."

That Soriano has comfort closing games should not be surprising, not after posting 45 saves in 2010 for the Rays. But it certainly wasn't in the Yankees' game plan for this season that he'd be there.

After Mariano Rivera's season-ending knee injury, it seemed easier at the time for Girardi to shift all of his bullpen pieces one slot higher to account for the loss, but David Robertson wobbled in the role before hitting the disabled list with a strained left oblique.

Robertson is slated to resume throwing off a mound in Tampa, Fla., on Saturday, but his time as the closer may have already expired. Girardi has not made any definitive statements, but Soriano is a perfect 6-for-6 in save opportunities since Robertson's departure and has offered no reason that he should be shifted back to the eighth inning.

"You know, if they want me to go in whatever situation, I'll go," Soriano said. "I try to do it."

Soriano never had interest in a setup role, though it was something he accepted when the Yankees offered closer dollars -- three years and $35 million -- before the 2011 season. At the time, Soriano said that when Rivera moved on, he hoped to be the one succeeding him in that role.

It's obvious that Soriano and Rivera are probably more different than they are alike -- in terms of personality, approach and temperament -- but the all-time saves leader seemed to give Soriano a positive endorsement for the job.

"He tells me, 'When you save a game in New York, not too many people can do it,'" Soriano said, "because you've got to be relaxed. You cannot try to go crazy. It's not easy. But like you, how you do it, you can do it."

Closing is dear to Soriano; on Wednesday, he recalled pitch-by-pitch details of a blown save pitching for the Rays in 2010, which also serves as an example of how rare his blown saves have been. A demotion of sorts was a challenge for Soriano to handle last year, but he said the offseason allowed him to find peace with it.

"That moment in the ninth, it wasn't the same last year," Soriano said. "So I was thinking it's going to be the same as last year, and it wasn't the same. So it'll be one year in the middle [2011] when I don't have that moment anymore. This year, I say, 'All right,' so everything feels better."

The bullpen Girardi expected to have cannot be completely restored, but the one he has is proving to be reliable, leaning on the likes of Boone Logan and Cory Wade for important innings.

"The hard thing is when you don't know what you have," Girardi said. "I know what I have and I know what I have to do, so you prepare for it. What it does is it changes how you use certain guys; I use Boonie a lot later than I would have.

"We're just not as deep and I have to be careful, because sometimes I might have to use three guys in one inning, and you worry about using guys too much. It's definitely different than what it was before, but it's not a surprise every night. I know what I have to do."

And that road leads to Soriano. He is cautious to say that he never would have wished injury on Rivera or Robertson, but he also cannot deny that his outings as the closer -- eight so far, including two saves last season -- provide much more adrenaline than pitching the seventh or eighth innings.

That increased focus does not always have a positive effect. In 2009, former Yankees pitcher Phil Coke seemed to hyperventilate while filling in on a day when Rivera was unavailable. At the very least, the Yankees know they don't have to worry about that with Soriano.

"I feel good when I do it in the ninth, or go in the eighth or the seventh with bases loaded sometimes with no outs," Soriano said. "I like that. A lot of people don't like it. Me, I like it. I love it."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and read his MLBlog, Bombers Beat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.