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Hispanic Yankee Greats of Days Past: Rafael Soriano

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The man who "replaced" Mariano Rivera.

Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

The closer role and the New York Yankees. These two things will forever instantaneously take you to the greatest to ever do it, Mariano Rivera. However, even Mo had to hang it up, and that left a hole that would never be completely filled again. The best management could do is minimize the impact of that loss and the pressure for whoever had to step in that role would be immeasurable. They got a crash course in doing so in 2012, however, when Rivera was lost for the year with an ACL tear early in the season.

The Yankees turned to one Rafael Soriano, who had a solid yet disappointing debut season in 2011 with the ball club after several successful years with the Seattle Mariners and Atlanta Braves. The Yankees were first-hand witnesses to his closing talents a season prior when Soriano pitched for their AL East rivals, the Tampa Bay Rays, where he threw 62.1 innings and allowed the grand total of 12 earned runs, giving him a 1.73 ERA.

For another weekly edition honoring a player of Hispanic heritage we’ll honor the journeyman reliever — who may not stand out in the history books, but one could argue that he had the hardest job anyone in the sport of baseball has had to approach even if for just one single season. Soriano was the closer for the first year following the retirement of Mariano Rivera.

Rafael Soriano was born on December 19, 1979 in San José de los Llanos in the Dominican Republic, and his history is one of perseverance and honesty that serves as an example to us all.

Soriano played in weekly tournaments before his teenage years, but coming from a very poor family, he couldn’t afford the fee for the trips he needed to make with the team. Even at an early age, that obstacle didn’t stop him — after a few chores for the team’s manager he had his fee covered.

At the age of 16, Soriano attended the Dominican baseball academy for the St. Louis Cardinals, but wasn’t offered a contract. Around that time, he had already quit school to work and help support his family, and even his lucky breaks became complicated — like when the opportunity to sign for the Hiroshima Carp, a team in the Nippon Professional Baseball League arose. Soriano was too young to join the league, and refused to lie about his age and falsify documents in order to jumpstart his career.

Despite all of these struggles it seemed like Soriano was destined to be a baseball player. It all came together for him when a Mariners scout, Ramón de Los Santos, signed him having watched him for a little over 10 minutes. Soriano began his career as an outfielder because of his strong arm, but the bat didn’t develop and after a while he was already planning to return to his home country following an inevitable release. However, somebody in the organization by the name of Rafael Chaves saw him throw and suggested a change to the mound. From that point on it was all history.

Jump ahead over a decade later — one which included an All-Star season out of the Rays’ bullpen — and Soriano found himself as the closer for the New York Yankees in the 2012 season. His outstanding play helped the team to a 95-67 record and an ALDS appearance.

Rafael Soriano posted the following numbers:

  • 67.2 Innings Pitched
  • 2.27 ERA
  • 42 Saves
  • 1.16 WHIP

Those stats even earned him down-ballot votes in the MVP race at the end of the year. It was far from the plan to have Soriano close games, but he thrived in the role. He went from being an inconsistent cog in the bullpen to the dominant force shortening the length of games that they sought when they signed him in free agency, and it happened almost overnight. The modern game has broken down the rigidness of assigning the best relievers to individual innings somewhat, but Soriano was a pitcher born into the old-school mentality of saving your closer for the ninth, and that is who he envisioned himself as.

For the purposes of comparison, despite a number of impressive and more dominant seasons in this post-Mariano Rivera era from Aroldis Chapman, the latter has yet to match the 42 saves in a single season that Soriano put up in 2012. He left the Yankees as a free agent following that season and signed a lucrative two-year, $22 million deal with the Washington Nationals.

Rafael Soriano finished his career with 207 saves, including 39 or more for four different teams.