December 19 – Happy Birthday Rafael Soriano
Besides paying him lots and lots of money, the Yankees did very little to help Raffie Soriano feel comfortable or even wanted, when he first put on the pinstripes. He was coming off a league-leading 45-save, 2010 season with the Tampa Bay Rays and had declared free agency. Everyone assumed the Dominican right-hander would get signed to a huge contract by a team that badly needed a closer. Everybody was mostly wrong. Soriano got the huge contract alright, but it was with the Yankees, a team that already had the greatest closer who ever played the game in their bullpen. Not only would Soriano not be closing, the GM of his new team let it be publicly known that he was against his signing.
I had seen Soriano pitch with the Rays the previous two years and he certainly looked mean and intimidating on the mound. But after watching him try to acclimate to an eighth inning set-up role during his first season in New York, this new Yankee looked more unhappy when he was pitching than anything else. After holding opponents scoreless in his first two appearances, he got roughed up by the Twins for four runs in his third and finished his first month in New York with an ERA over seven. Than he got hurt in the middle of May and was on the DL for the next month and a half. By the time he got back, David Robertson had firmly ensconced himself in the Yankee’s eighth-inning set-up role and Soriano had to be wondering what his future was with his new team. But instead of sulking, he sucked it up and kept pitching and though he got roughed up a couple of times in the final two months of that 2011 season, I could tell the guy was a battler.
When the 2012 season started, the press crew covering the Yankees were all trying to figure out if it would be Mariano Rivera’s final year. Robertson’s brilliance in 2011 dictated he’d start the year as the eighth-inning set-up guy and Sori was once again expected to work the seventh. Then on May 3, the Yankees were taking batting practice in Kansas City and Rivera fell awkwardly on Kaufman Stadium’s center field warning track while pursuing a hard-hit ball off the bat of A-Rod. I’m sure lots of Yankee fans watching replays of Rivera being carted off the field felt New York’s hopes of making the postseason were being carted away with him.
I remember thinking how badly Soriano must have felt when Joe Girardi turned to Robertson in the first save situation the Yankees faced without Rivera, especially because the opponent was Soriano’s former team, the Rays. Robertson was successful in that first attempt but he blew the next save and then injured his ribs. Suddenly, Soriano was the new Yankee closer. Forty-two saves later he was arguably the most valuable Yankee of the 2012 regular season. Considering his shaky start the season before, it was a truly remarkable performance, one of the most clutch in franchise history.
After New York’s disappointing 2012 postseason, during which he pitched four and a third innings of scoreless ball, Soriano decided to take advantage of the opt-out clause in his Yankee contract and again become a free agent. Fortunately for New York, Mariano Rivera announced he was coming back in 2013. Still, losing Soriano represents a major depletion in the Yankees’ 2013 bullpen. I’m so glad Hal Steinbrenner overruled Cashman two years ago and insisted the Yankees sign this guy. I’m going to miss him staring inside his hat before facing a batter and untucking his jersey after nailing down a save. I hope that’s all I end up missing.