Mo's influence helps Soriano in journey as closer

Mo's influence helps Soriano in journey as closer

Mo's influence helps Soriano in journey as closer
NEW YORK -- It is a quirky scene that the Yankees have watched play out dozens of times this year, and it always means good news for them. Almost harboring a look of disdain, Rafael Soriano violently untucks his jersey from his uniform pants, signifying the end of his work day.

Soriano's end-of-game act might draw fresh attention if it happens during the postseason, but then again, Soriano's presence alone will accomplish that. For the first time in recent history, the Yankees are heading to the playoffs with a closer not named Mariano Rivera.

"It's been odd, him not being here all year, not just now," Yankees captain Derek Jeter said. "But we wouldn't be where we are without Sori. He has been outstanding. He has the history of being a closer, but he's been as good as you could have hoped for."

As much as the Yankees wish they hadn't frittered away the 10-game lead they held in the American League East back on July 18, they undoubtedly would ask first for a mulligan on the batting practice fly ball that claimed the season of their 42-year-old closer.

Rivera crumpled to Kauffman Stadium's warning track on the afternoon of May 3, his right anterior cruciate ligament paying the price for a lunge gone wrong, and the Yankees immediately wondered how they could chase a World Series title without their most valuable weapon.

"If you want to pick one player that's right up there with this run we've been on, and to be able to do what we've done, it's him," Andy Pettitte said. "He has just dominated this game, almost like [Michael] Jordan dominated basketball. Mo just makes this game look so easy, and it is absolutely incredible."

After a brief dalliance with David Robertson, the Yankees discovered the luxury of having a former closer standing by as an $11 million setup man. Soriano has been splendid, converting 42 of 46 save opportunities, doing so with Rivera occasionally checking in to whisper advice.

"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."

It's unfair to ask anyone to replace Rivera, the legendary owner of an all-time record 42 saves in the postseason, but Jeter believes that Soriano's past success as a closer proved that he could get the job done.

"I don't think you can go out there and say, 'I'm going to try to be Mo,'" Jeter said. ""You're not going to be Mo; no one is going to be Mo. If you're a catcher, you can't say, 'Let me try to be Jorge [Posada].' You've just got to try to be yourself, and that's what he's done."

Rivera and Soriano may locker next to each other, but their personalities could not differ more. As much as the Yankees miss Rivera's presence on the mound, they have also marked his absence as the clubhouse's spiritual leader and gleeful prankster.

"I feel like I notice him in BP not being around," Robertson said. "I notice him because he's not throwing gum at me or making fun of me because I missed a fly ball or something, or ragging on somebody in the outfield."

By comparison, a recent ESPN.com story revealed that Soriano was once given a clubhouse nickname of "El Silencioso," or "the silent one." That fits, which predictably causes some friction with the New York media.

In August, Rivera admonished Soriano for walking out of Yankee Stadium following a blown save, shunning a crowd of reporters. Soriano apologized for the gaffe, saying that he didn't know anyone wanted to talk to him.

"[Rivera] said, 'If you've got a bad game, the media [will] come to you and ask you some questions,'" Soriano said. "The questions won't be one hour. It'll be a couple minutes. One second. That's it. He tells me good things."

Handling the press is part of Soriano's job, but not as critical as sealing important wins. Soriano's work in that area has the Yankees feeling confident heading to October, even though the 32-year-old's playoff experience has been limited to six games and 7 2/3 innings in 2010-11.

"We feel like the game is over when he comes in," Robertson said. "It's the same thing as Mo; you're not going to win them all, occasionally one is going to slip through your fingers, but for the most part -- you get the lead to the late innings, let's finish it and go for it."

Soriano said that he loves the pressure of pitching with the game on the line, which might explain why his Yankees dalliances as a seventh- and eighth-inning reliever didn't go swimmingly.

"It can be one run, two runs, it can be bases loaded; I like that," Soriano said. "Whatever happens, it can happen. I like to be in the game like that."

It has long been said that the most unforgiving assignment would be to inherit the closer role after Rivera's retirement, and since Rivera has strongly vowed to pitch again in 2013, that isn't exactly Soriano's situation.

But in this unpredictable season, Soriano has learned what it would be like to take over for Rivera -- the highs, the lows, the successes and the failures. For the most part, the Yankees have been ecstatic with the results of an experiment they would have preferred never to have seen in action.

"I think any time you're trying to replace the greatest player ever at a position, I don't need to explain that," Pettitte said. "It's pretty simple. It's an easy one to figure out. But Soriano is not Mo. Nobody is. We have been spoiled by Mariano Rivera. You can never expect to see that again, because it's not going to happen."

Bryan Hoch is a reporter for MLB.com. 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.