Rays have found their classic closer

St. Petersburg Times (Florida) 
Times Sports Columnist

PORT CHARLOTTE — Jeter and A-Rod, you say. And he does not quiver.

Ortiz and Youkilis, you say. And he does not flinch.

Teixeira and Hill, you are about to say. And he does not wait for you to finish because the list of imposing American League East hitters is long.

“I do not care,” Rafael Soriano says softly, firmly. “If I am healthy, if I am on the mound, I do not care who the hitter is. I am good, too.”

And with that tiny preview into his swagger, the new closer in town says hello.

Soon enough, he will be in charge of saying good night.

If this year’s Rays are going to be better than last year’s Rays, it starts here, with the new pitcher and the live arm and the death stare. Finally, the Rays have someone whose job description is to save the day. Finally, the ninth inning may make opposing fans more nervous than those of the Rays.

This could change everything. If the Rays are right about Soriano’s arm, about his attitude, about the way he will fit into the American League East, it could end those nervous nights where closing was left to a bullpen full of volunteer firemen.

For this year, at least, Soriano owns the ninth.

“I like to be that guy,” Soriano said, the lilt of his native Domi­nican Republic heavy in his voice. “I like to see the stadium go crazy in the last minute and the last second.”

Ah, but the pressure

“There is no pressure,” he said. “I like that situation.”

Soriano says these things without raising his voice. He sounds as if he is explaining, not boasting. For a closer, this kind of self-confidence is as important as, say, lungs. In the ninth, give me a nasty, snarling guy over a diplomat every time. Provided, of course, that he throws at Internet speed. For instance, Saturday morning, Rays senior adviser Don Zimmer was talking about his days as a manager and how he called in a closer to face a potent batter. Upon closer look, Zimmer said, the closer’s bottom lip was quivering in fear.

“There is a lot of gamesmanship,” manager Joe Maddon said. “(Former big-league manager) Gene Mauch used to talk about all that electricity that goes on between the mound and home plate that people don’t understand. If the hitter senses an advantage, it matters. If the pitcher senses an advantage, it matters.”

And if the pitcher stares at the batter with Medusa’s eyes, how much does that matter?

That, too, is part of Soriano’s presence on the mound. He has this stare that can knock birds off of telephone wires. Frankly, he looks a little like the Grim Reaper with a mitt. Even his friends have asked him why he looks so intimidating on the mound.

“It’s just the way I look,” Soriano, 30, said. “I’m not putting on an act. I’m not trying to look like someone else.”

Said pitching coach Jim Hickey: “He looks that way at breakfast, too.”

Hickey knows a little more than most of us about Soriano. A half-dozen seasons ago, he was one of the coaches on a Dominican winter league team. Soriano was one of the team’s pitchers.

“He was pitching against major-league All-Stars,” Hickey remembers. “Players like (David) Ortiz and (Miguel) Tejada and (Rafael) Furcal. And he wasn’t intimidated at all. He went right after those guys. He’s fearless. He wants the ball. He loves the ball.”

When the Rays speak of Soriano, they tend to rely on one phrase a lot. “Swing-and-miss stuff,” they say. For a closer, that’s perfect. Strike a batter out, and runners don’t advance. Strike a batter out, and no one flubs a ground ball. Last year, for instance, the right-hander struck out 102 batters in 752/3 innings for the Braves. Right-handed hitters hit only .167 against him.

“This guy has dominant ability,” Maddon said. “You get a quality closer and automatically get a more intelligent manager.”

True, there are questions. Soriano never has been a closer for a full season. And although he saved 27 out of 31 chances last year, it was his first year in double-digit saves.

Even so, the Rays were impressed enough that when they had a chance to get him, they jumped. Still, Soriano won’t be here forever. This appears to be a one-year marriage of convenience. The Rays needed to settle on a closer (they tried nine last season; they also had three players in the top 12 of the American League in blown saves). Soriano needed to find a team that would give him the chance to springboard into the really big money.

“People ask me if I can have 35, 37 saves,” Soriano said. “I tell them ‘more than that.'”

So what’s fair to expect?

“I don’t want to put a number on it,” Hickey said. “I hope we can run him out there 50 times and he can convert 90 percent. How’s that? We’ll take 45 out of 50 right now. I won’t say that’s unfair.”

Saving the day? That’s fair. Sealing the deal? That, too.

If the Rays are right about Soriano, all things are possible.

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