Soriano exudes quiet confidence
Addition of steady closer has domino effect on Rays' bullpen
ST. PETERSBURG -- Shortly after a late-July win in Cleveland, the Rays appeared to be mocking the Red Sox, as "Sweet Caroline" rang through the inside of the visiting clubhouse at Cleveland's Progressive Field.
The Red Sox had lost that day, and the Neil Diamond classic has grown to be synonymous with the Red Sox, since the song is played in the eighth inning at all of the team's home games at Fenway Park. Given Boston's success over the past decade, most opposing players detest the song. Even Lou Piniella formed a strong opinion. After the Rays had taken it on the chin at Fenway, the former Rays manager and current Cubs skipper noted: "I know one thing, I've heard enough 'Sweet Caroline.'"
Alas, appearances can be misleading. What could have been mistaken for the Rays mocking their American League East rivals was instead a case of the team kicking back and watching their closer, Rafael Soriano, enjoy his favorite song.
"He loves the song 'Sweet Caroline,'" fellow Rays reliever Lance Cormier said. "When we're in Boston, he's happy. He loves that song. It makes him 'feel so good,' he says."
Explained Soriano: "The first time I heard that I [was] with Seattle in '02. I [saw] everybody going crazy singing that song in Boston. Every time I pitched the eighth, I [heard] the words. I like it, I like it. It makes me feel good."
If Soriano wants to play "Sweet Caroline," you won't catch anybody inside the Rays' clubhouse complaining. Fact of the matter is, Soriano could hook up a bubble machine and play Lawrence Welk. That's how good he's been this season, and how much the native of the Dominican Republic means to the Rays.
Entering Wednesday afternoon's game, Soriano had 32 saves and a save percentage of 94.1, which ranked second in the Major Leagues behind Detroit's Jose Valverde.
Prior to the 2010 season, the Rays returned to a formula that had worked for the team in '08 by improving their bullpen. Prior to the '08 season, veteran Troy Percival was brought in to be the closer. Bringing him in to be the guy to pitch the ninth allowed everybody in the bullpen to move down a notch. If a guy had been pitching the ninth, he could be moved to the eighth, and so on.
The Rays had worked without a legitimate closer in 2009, and had mixed results, so when they had a chance to obtain Soriano, the Rays pulled the trigger on a deal that sent Jesse Chavez to the Braves. Making that deal has meant everything to this year's bullpen.
"Last year we had four guys, maybe five guys, running around for the last four innings of the game, if that's what it took to mix and match," right-hander Dan Wheeler said. "[Soriano has] pretty much just locked down the ninth inning for us."
Jim Hickey said he had talked to some people about Soriano prior to, and after, his acquisition, and the Rays pitching coach said the "overwhelming consensus" gleaned from those conversations pointed to all good traits: he had above-average stuff, he wanted the ball, and he was a good competitor.
Soriano experienced a respiratory infection early in Spring Training, which might have cast some doubts about him from his new teammates. The way Soriano coughed, he obviously was not at top health. Then again, it would have been easy to think he was a guy with a big contract trying to skate along. When you get to a new ballclub, you don't want to be sitting on the training table when the other guys are outside doing stuff that nobody really enjoys doing.
"You could easily have gotten the wrong impression, but as I talked to him, it was obvious he was extremely professional," Hickey said. "He was prepared, which in a way surprised me a little bit. Not the professional part, but the preparedness part."
Hickey noted that the nature of a closer will often see him go with what works for him and he doesn't think a lot about who he's throwing against, or what they're going to try and do against him.
"But he's extremely diligent in terms of preparing like that," Hickey noted. "He knows exactly what he wants to do and he doesn't just dominate, a la Mariano Rivera with a cutter or Hoffman with a changeup, or Bruce Sutter, back in the day, with a split-finger.
"He throws a four-seamer. He throws a two-seamer. He cuts a fastball. He throws a slider. He's even slipped in a split-finger here and there. He's done a really nice job of pitching, so it's not just kind of a mindless, 'Here's my best pitch, go ahead and hit it if you can.'"
In addition to possessing filthy stuff, Soriano is chock full of confidence.
"I think he absolutely feels like he's the man," Hickey said. "But I can remember as far back as Spring Training saying that he [exudes confidence even] at the breakfast table. And he really does. The scowl and the cocksure attitude are not just a ploy for the ninth inning. That's the way that he walks around. I think that's more of his personality than it is a game-time mechanism for him to get up for the ballgame."
Randy Choate described Soriano as having "kind of a quiet confidence."
"But you know that he knows he's going to get people out," Choate said. "So he's not one of those guys who has to walk around letting you know how good he is."
When asked how he deals with the pressure, Soriano boomed out in his deep voice that it's all about getting the last three outs.
"To me, I like the moment," Soriano said. "When you come to me, I [have] the ball, I [am] the man there and you see what happens."
When Soriano enters the game, he bends over and uses his right index finger to scribble something in the dirt on the backside of the mound. He then removes his hat, appearing to read some message on the underside of the brim. When asked what he is doing in either case, Soriano smiled.
"That is for Soriano," he said. "I keep that for me. That would be something that's mine. A lot of people ask me about it. That's mine, I don't [tell anyone]."
While secretive about the above-mentioned gestures, which Rays fans are curious to know about, Soriano did offer one window into his soul by allowing that he has experienced one big difference personally in 2010. Many of his family members are with him after working out different scenarios allowing them to be in the United States.
"We are here together, that's one of the reasons I feel more comfortable," Soriano said. "I don't have to worry about what is going on at home. To me, I feel happy. I feel comfortable here. Yeah, I'm happy a lot of good things [have] happened this year."
That happiness has translated to excellence on the field.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.