Fresh start for Soriano
Hohokam Park was filled and then topped off with reborn believers, staying strong in spite of the two home runs Carlos Silva(notes) had allowed to Carlos Quentin(notes), in spite of the previous season, in spite of the previous century.
But, at the moment, Soriano was in left field, recovering from the single he’d just turned into an unearned run and a few extra bases, and the boisterous fan’s two beers had become three [all right, four], bringing a wail of exasperation: “Even I can do that!”
Yes, Soriano’s knee is stronger. The stride is shorter. The psyche is haler. The place in the order is safer.
Soriano, however, remains for Cubs fans as good a place as any to pile their This Is the Year insecurities.
At least mildly disappointing in his first two seasons in Wrigleyville, Soriano, on a damaged leg, became a free-swinging, loose-fielding, $136 million-earning target in his third. By the end of it, the whole of his Cubs experience included 125 missed games, unyielding debate about his place at the top of the order, a couple All-Star Games, a few months of carrying the club and far, far more months of being carried.
Fortunately, he has five years remaining (and another $90 million) to get all that turned around. In the short term, Cubs fans would accept him keeping singles at singles. Then they can talk about the season, during which, as it looks right now, he’ll have to be very good, or the Cubs won’t be.
A suspect pitching staff took a hit Saturday, when the Cubs learned Angel Guzman(notes) has a torn ligament in his pitching shoulder. It’s a little early for bad news, even in Cubs camp. If they’re going to overtake the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central, the Cubs might have to hit their way to it.
Across the field, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen was asked, considering the Cubs nearby, if he believed in jinxes.
“No,” he said firmly. “I believe you create your own jinx.”
So, the idea of a fresh start and fresh legs for Soriano was well-received, even if the early optimism was based less on results – hitless in two plate appearances and the clumsy error in left, along with a diving catch – than the fact he is walking without a limp, spending lots of time with hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo and smiling again.
“It’s great to play the game with no pain,” he said after his six innings against the White Sox. “At the same time, it felt weird. It was a long time not playing.
“The most important thing is to trust my knee. The defense and the offense are coming.”
Because he is recovering from knee surgery, turned 34 in the offseason and has spent a lot of recent days defending his deficiencies, it is perhaps easy to forget Soriano was one of the game’s premier offensive threats not long ago. Three and four seasons ago he was still pulling plenty of MVP votes, in spite of being a miscast – and stubborn – leadoff hitter.
Lou Piniella’s intention is to bat Soriano sixth, behind Derrek Lee(notes) (third), Aramis Ramirez(notes) (fourth) and Marlon Byrd(notes) (fifth). The best scenario would have Byrd protecting Soriano, not the other way around, but Soriano apparently will have to earn that. Toward it, Jaramillo is stressing balance, an abbreviated leg kick and shorter swings to a ball allowed to get deeper in the zone. Soriano’s bat speed, according to Jaramillo, is not an issue. That’s good, because Soriano undoubtedly will need it over the next five years.
To Lee, Soriano’s season – along with the Cubs’ – rests on Soriano being able to play as many as 150 games.
“I don’t think we’re going to see the 40-40 guy,” Lee said. “But, I think the power is still there. When he’s right and he’s hot, there’s not a lot of hitters like Soriano. If he’s good, he changes the whole offense. He’s that good.”
The problems come when injuries, particularly lower-half injuries, get tangled up with advancing age and an unbending ego and an impatient fan base almost literally leaning over his shoulder. The bleacher bums don’t have Milton Bradley(notes) to kick around anymore, and the pitchers are too far away to pound. But, at least Soriano now has more than a leg to stand on (and run on, and hit on).
“Last year,” he said, “I put in the past. I had not a good year, but it made me a better human being. I’d never had a bad year. … Sometimes I think like, you know, everything goes perfect. But, when you’re going bad, you know who your friends are. I have a lot of friends and a lot of family.”
Just so he knows, they’ll be behind him all the way.