For the last decade, the song signaling a save situation at Yankee Stadium has been Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” blaring over the loudspeakers as Mariano Rivera calmly jogs to the mound to close out a Yankee win.
Since Rivera’s stunning ACL injury, a new song has taken over and had Yankee fans dancing to rhythmic Latin beats. That song is for Rafael Soriano who has gone from injured setup man in 2011 to standout closer in the last four months.
“To me, I want to help the team win,” Soriano said Wednesday. “After Mariano, that thing happened, they gave me the opportunity and it was one of the best things I did. If I don’t do what I do, I don’t think the team would be celebrating right now. So I feel so happy for the team.”
Not many teams can just thrust someone into replacing the best closer of all-time. Not many teams can also flex their financial muscle and sign someone to a three-year contract for $35 million to be a setup man.
It was a move that general manager Brian Cashman did not approve of and when Soriano had a lengthy DL stint and pitched in 42 games in 2011, it seemed like the wrong move. But that time is forgotten and Soriano’s performance is among the primary reasons the Yankees attained the best record in the AL.
Rivera went down shagging fly balls in batting practice on May 3 in Kansas City. At the time, Soriano had allowed 10 hits and just two runs while getting eight strikeouts in his first eight innings of the year.
After that point, he converted 42 of 46 saves. While converting the same number of saves as Rivera’s jersey number, Soriano pitched 59 2/3 innings and allowed 45 hits and struck out 57 while appearing in 57 games. In save situations he held opposing hitters to a .205 average and a .254 on-base percentage.
If those numbers sound somewhat familiar that is because they are. Two years ago, Soriano converted 45 out of 48 save opportunities for the Rays, who edged the Yankees by two games for the AL East and during that season, he allowed 36 hits and struck out 57 in 62 1/3 innings.
“He’s done everything that’s been asked of him,” Curtis Granderson said. “He comes in and been an eighth inning guy. He’s come in when asked to close and been able to do that. He’s definitely been ready for us. Obviously you don’t want to have injuries happen like they did with Mariano but it did, he’s closed before. So he’s not foreign to having that role in the past. He just kind of falls in and makes it second nature because he’s done it before.”
Of course the playoffs are a different animal, especially if you’re not Mariano Rivera. Rivera has 42 postseason saves in 141 innings and the next closest is Brad Lidge with 18 saves in 45 1/3 innings.
Soriano’s postseason experience consists of six appearances, spanning 7 2/3 innings. During those outings he has allowed three home runs.
In 2010 against Texas, he gave up a home run to Nelson Cruz in a non-save situation in Game 3, followed by a clean save in Game 4. In the deciding fifth game, Soriano allowed a two-run home run to Ian Kinsler that turned a two-run deficit into a four-run deficit for Tampa Bay.
Last season, he pitched in Game 3 and gave up the go-ahead solo home run to Delmon Young. He followed that up by pitching three scoreless innings in the next two games.
Being able to rebound may also have to do with his personality.
“He’s chill,” Granderson said. “He gets his work done. He focuses on his day-to-day stuff. He knows that he needs to be ready whenever it happens to be. It could be a day, it could be back-to-back days or it could be a week before he happens to get the ball.”
Now the real test of Soriano’s mettle as a closer will come and if he’s chill on the mound that would be a good sign for the Yankees. The better indicator will be the more times he gets to grab his jersey and untuck it to celebrate a victory.
Follow Yankees beat writer Larry Fleisher on Twitter @LarryFleisher.