The performance of Joakim Soria has been nothing short of amazing so far in 2015.
Without him, there is no way the Detroit Tigers are in first place at this writing.
Absolutely no way.
The pleasant surprise that is Soria is like finding a ten dollar bill in an old jacket pocket.
The Tigers bullpen has not fully exorcised the demons of seasons past, not by any means. But Detroit seems to have finally found an answer to the closer situation.
The summer of 2011 seems like a century ago. Jose Valverde was dancing his way to 49 saves in 49 opportunities. How was that even possible?
Since then, the Tigers bullpen has been a house of horrors.
Dave Dombrowski took the blame for the situation, because he is the general manager, and GMs get paid a lot of money to produce winners. Hindsight is 20/20, and it is easy to rail on him for a failure to address the team’s most glaring need when a World Series was in the balance.
But Dombrowki can’t be faulted for trying. He was like a man throwing darts, trying in vain to hit the bulls eye after Valverde’s demise.
The litany of Tiger pitchers given a chance at closing games, with varying degrees of success (or lack thereof), reads like a dirty laundry list: Joaquin Benoit. Octavio Dotel. Phil Coke. Drew Smyly. Brayan Villarreal. Jose Veras. Bruce Rondon. Joba Chamberlain. Joe Nathan. Al Alburquerque. Ian Krol. Joel Hanrahan.
The ninth inning for the Tigers was a surreal place to be. When a closer trotted in from the bullpen, we almost expected Rod Serling to appear from around the corner, cigarette in hand, to warn us that we’d just crossed over into the Twilight Zone.
Valverde, even when he was at the heights of his success, was a high-wire act. And going back a few years, fans will remember the edge-of-your-seat performances of Fernando Rodney and Todd Jones. Late-inning theatrics have been must-see TV in this town. Assuming, of course, one had the stomach to watch.
Until this season, Soria was seemingly just another guy who hadn’t panned out for Detroit.
But the season-ending injury to Nathan has forced manager Brad Ausmus to hand the reins to Soria.
It has been a smooth ride so far.
Very calmly and quietly, a fine closer has fallen into the Tigers’ lap. Soria has been the difference for the team this year. Without him, who knows where they might be. Probably battling Cleveland and Chicago for fourth place.
Not bad for a pitcher that in spring training was considered number three on the depth chart, behind Nathan and Rondon.
Soria has been here before. He was a premier closer with the Royals for a number of years, topping forty saves twice. Injuries sidetracked his career, but now he is finally back to full health, and at age 30 he has regained his former All-Star form.
Given the follies of the last three years, Tiger fans are understandably gun-shy with a slim ninth-inning lead. But Soria has calmed fears, for the moment anyway. Following the four-game series in Kansas City, he has ten saves in as many opportunities. He has been remarkably efficient. Tiger fans need not reach for the bottle of Tums when he takes the mound.
We must remember, however, that it is only May. There is still a long, long way to go in the marathon that is a major league baseball season. Trying to predict who will be closing out games for the Detroit Tigers in late September and early October is like trying to predict the weather in Michigan.
But for right now, today, the best closer in baseball wears the Old English “D.”
And for that, the Tigers couldn’t be happier.