The knee injury that Mariano Rivera suffered chasing fly balls in practice in Kansas City in May ruined his 2012 season and was supposed to take the New York Yankees down with him. However, just one seat over on the bullpen bench reclined Rafael Soriano, given a three-year, $35 million contract in 2011 to serve as a set-up man.
Instead, Soriano became one of the best insurance policies money can buy and the Yankees are still in the hunt to capture the American League East Division title because Soriano performed a near-impeccable imitation of Rivera. The Yankees and surprising Baltimore Orioles are fighting it out to win the division crown, but without Soriano the Yankees might be battling with the Boston Red Sox for last place. Going into Sunday’s play Soriano has 39 saves and a 2.10 earned run average.
Under incredible pressure and intense scrutiny, surrounded by a skeptical fan base, the 32-year-old Dominican has performed as well as anyone could have expected future Hall of Famer Rivera to do this year. In other words, thrust into very difficult and challenging circumstances, Soriano was just as good as the greatest closer of all time could have been. A tip of all of those iconic looking NY caps to Soriano. Replacing the best-ever at his position, on no notice, on an emergency basis, with no advance preparation can be one of the most daunting assignments in sport. And as well-liked as Rivera is, to make everyone simply forget about his loss, well, that’s pretty remarkable.
It’s not as if manager Joe Girardi and the rest of the Yankees’ hierarchy could count on this switch being so seamless or successful. Soriano has had just one season as a closer that was better than this and only one other closer year that comes at all close to approximating it in an 11-year career. He has spent considerably more time as a middle reliever than as a closer and that’s why the Yankees hired him to fulfill that role.
Soriano was 22 when he broke into the majors in 2002 with the Seattle Mariners and his stay in the Pacific Northwest featured up and down years. He showed promise in 2003 with a 3-0 record and a 1.53 ERA in 40 games. But a torn ligament and Tommy John surgery followed, pretty much wrecking the next two seasons. Then in 2006 he was hit by a line drive on the mound, much like the A’s’ Brandon McCarthy recently, and was hospitalized with a concussion.
Seattle traded Soriano to Atlanta and he spent three seasons there, including 2009 when he had 27 saves, though just a 1-6 record. In fact, Soriano’s lifetime won-loss record is weak at 15-24. After the 2009 season the Braves traded the 6-foot-1, 230-pound right-hander to Tampa Bay and he turned in a spectacular season with a 1.73 ERA and 45 saves (which led the American League).
The Yankees, who have been known to play the sport with monopoly money, threw a big contract at Soriano and then asked little of him last year–and that’s what he delivered. Soriano’s 2011 numbers: 2-3, 4.12 ERA, two saves. So when Soriano was tapped as Rivera’s fill-in when the king of closers went down, there was no guarantee, and only limited evidence, that things would work out this well for New York.
Regardless of how the final two weeks of the regular season play out in terms of outlasting the Orioles or not–and even Derek Jeter‘s extraordinary season included–Rafael Soriano is the Yankees’ Most Valuable Player this year.