Soriano’s perfect frame is good look for Rays

Even in a baseball season draped in pitching, accessorized by the rise of the fastball and drowned in the desperation of bat-rack Red Bull, the art of perfect remained in 2010 an admirable enough pursuit.

Rays closer Rafael Soriano achieved a rare nine-pitch, nine-strike inning in August.
(Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

Roy Halladay(notes) and Dallas Braden(notes) were perfect less than three weeks apart in May, the 19th and 20th times that 27 came and went without incident. Armando Galarraga(notes) was perfect himself in early June, so much so that one umpire believed he could call the rest of the game blindfolded.

And nearly two months later, Rafael Soriano(notes) was perfect.

Maybe you missed that one. It lasted only 10 minutes.

On a warm, late August night in Anaheim, Soriano was closer perfect – one-run lead, bottom of the ninth, three outs to victory.

The bullpen door swung open, and on nine fastballs, the Tampa Bay Rays’ Soriano struck out three Los Angeles Angels.

In the history of the game, 20 pitchers have been game perfect and only twice that – 40 – had been inning perfect. Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax and Lefty Grove each did it twice, making Soriano’s perfect inning the 44th overall.

Afterward, approached by a handful of reporters, Soriano turned to them, narrowed one eye suspiciously and said, “Oh my God. What I do?”

Clearly, closer perfect hasn’t yet taken hold in the mainstream. No big party. No break-in on the MLB network. Just an icepack and a see-you-tomorrow.

Rafael Soriano was one of the best closers in the AL this season.
(Jeff Griffit/US Presswire)
Name Team Saves BAA
Rafael Soriano TB 45 .163
Joakim Soria KC 43 .216
Neftali Feliz TEX 40 .176
Kevin Gregg TOR 37 .237
Jonathan Papelbon BOS 37 .226
Mariano Rivera NYY 33 .183

Soriano is understated like that. Statistically the best closer in the game in 2010, a title he’d hand to Mariano Rivera(notes) the moment the calendar turned to October, he’s worked the ninth inning regularly for only a season and a half. He’s never thrown a pitch in the postseason. And of the eight closers who will stand out there on cold, breezy evenings over the coming month and try not to have an entire season’s work come crashing down with one back-up slider, he is among the least credentialed.

But hey, none of them was perfect over nine pitches. He smiled.

“I’m not going to be scared to pitch,” Soriano said. “I’ll pitch. If something happens, it happens. The game is the game.”

Raised in San Pedro de Macoris in the Dominican Republic, Soriano signed at 16 with the Seattle Mariners. From the land of shortstops, he was an outfielder and first baseman. But he did hit like a shortstop. He was made into a pitcher after hitting .220 over two seasons of rookie ball, became a strike-thrower with a fastball that reached 100 mph, pitched in the middle and toward the end of bullpens in Seattle and Atlanta, became the Braves closer when Mike Gonzalez was lost to injury and the Rays closer – in a trade – when the Braves signed Billy Wagner(notes).

“To me, every day, every year, I get more control,” said Soriano, who speaks softly and earnestly. “I know the hitters, too. I’m the same guy, but I’ve got another year. My mind is different, how I think, everything like that.”

He saved 45 games for the Rays and blew just three. In 64 appearances, his ERA was 1.73 and his WHIP 0.80. Opposing hitters batted .163.

And, just as the notion and security of Troy Percival(notes) in the ninth inning once put the Rays on the map, Soriano arrived and solidified the Rays bullpen again. In the two seasons in their history in which they have contended, the Rays have had special players, special pitchers and a very special guy on a bench just beyond the outfield wall, waiting for the ninth inning.

Where Percival was all guts and gung-ho and flying body parts, Soriano is just 30, and only now arriving in the role. Often, he watches the game on television for the first five innings, and in the sixth drifts into the dugout, where he shakes a few hands, pats a few rumps, let’s ‘em all know he’ll be down there waiting. Then, with great ceremony, he leaves them.

“It’s almost like a bullfight,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “He’s going to go out there, come in and fight some bulls for us. … He’s very quiet. And muy macho.”

On that particular night in late August, it was the bulls who wore red.

Erick Aybar(notes), who had faced Soriano several times in the Dominican winter leagues, when he played for Licey and Soriano pitched for Escogido, was familiar with the unpredictability of Soriano’s fastball. It would cut, or run, or blow straight through the top of the strike zone.

Soriano led the AL with 45 saves, and he held opponents to a .163 batting average.
(J. Meric/Getty Images)

“I wanted contact,” said Aybar, “any contact.”

Yet, he took a fastball for a strike inside, swung over an inside fastball and tipped a third fastball – at 95 mph – into the mitt of catcher Kelly Shoppach(notes).

“He never repeats the same pitch,” Aybar said. “You think too much, you’re in trouble. It’s hard to think along with him.”

The Angels, still down that run and having failed to put the speedy Aybar on base, pinch-hit Mike Napoli(notes), the thick-shouldered, upper-cut swinging catcher.

“In that situation,” Napoli said, “I wasn’t trying to hit a single. I was trying to tie the game. I was up there for one purpose.”

Soriano went away with a fastball that Napoli swung through, down the middle with a fastball that Napoli fouled off and chin-high with a fastball Napoli that did not catch up to. Disgusted, Napoli returned to the dugout.

“I don’t know if he meant to go up there or what,” Napoli said. “Just saw it up and it was a little too high.”

The rookie, Peter Bourjos(notes), passed Napoli on the way to the plate.

“I was going to see a pitch,” Bourjos said. “The scouting report said his fastball was straight. The first pitch had cut to it.”

It was a fastball, 94 mph, that started down the middle and finished on the far perimeter of the strike zone.

“So, I’m thinking,” Bourjos said, “ ‘All right, maybe he came around it some.’ ”

He fouled off the next fastball, similar to the first, and began to believe he’d figured out Soriano.

“I’m trying to protect outside corner and react in,” he said.

Soriano came in, at 93.

Bourjos grinned, like “Whadda ya gonna do?”

“He happened to sneak it by me,” he said.

Bourjos missed it, the ninth pitch, the ninth fastball, the third strikeout, the perfect close.

Soriano was not overwhelmed. He thought maybe he’d done it before, but maybe not. He wore his celebratory ice bag proudly. And that was that, 10 minutes of work.

“I’m here to close games,” he said, and then again, “Something happens, it happens.”

Tim Brown is a national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports. He co-authored with Jim Abbott the memoir “Imperfect: an Improbable Life”.   Follow him on Twitter.   Send Tim a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Oct 4, 2010