Anaheim, Calif. — He had boarded a jet at 9:28 a.m. in New York, arriving in Los Angeles at 12:30 p.m., local time.
It was now 3:45 p.m. at a baseball clubhouse in Anaheim and Joakim Soria’s dizzying past 24 hours continued their surreal ways as he stood in front of a locker, now as a member of the Tigers.
“Good to see you, brother,” Justin Verlander said as he stopped for a hug with a 30-year-old, right-handed reliever the Tigers brought to Detroit by way of a Wednesday night trade with the Rangers.
Verlander’s embrace was no more heartfelt, or significant, than the one exchanged between Soria and his former Rangers teammate, Joe Nathan.
“Good to see you,” Nathan and Soria said to each other, with wide smiles, as they clasped.
Good to see, indeed, that tall (6-foot-3), goateed man from Mexico, at least if you were a member of a first-place Tigers team that has been starved for reliable, shutdown relief pitching in games’ waning innings.
“Having Soria out of the ’pen has got to bring a level of confidence,” said Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, whose team was set to open a four-game series against the Angels at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Calif.
Ausmus paused for a mini-second and said: “But we still have to go out and do it.”
Doing it, in managerial parlance, means winning games. And winning games means finishing games the Tigers so often have struggled to satisfactorily complete for much of the past two years.
Soria almost certainly will help, if he does not in fact prove to be something of a messiah for the Tigers relief corps, thanks to these numbers from Soria’s 35 games with the Rangers this season: 33.1 innings, 25 hits, 42 strikeouts, and a low four walks.
But there was, of course, bound to be at least a slight and tense undercurrent to the Soria blockbuster, which saw Detroit part with prospect pitchers Corey Knebel and Jake Thompson.
Soria has been a closer for most of his big league life, with the Royals (2007-11) and Rangers. Nathan happens to be the Tigers resident closer. And the Tigers are clear and comfortable in saying Nathan will remain the closer, with Soria and his bedeviling bag of four pitches (fastball, slider, curveball, change-up) available for use in the seventh, eighth, or ninth inning, depending upon situations, fatigue, and, of course, performances.
Soria and Nathan each spent long moments Thursday insisting role was no issue for either man, no matter how much a pitcher’s identity might be intertwined with the center-stage closer’s role.
“I know how to do other stuff, too,” said Soria, a native of Monclova, Mexico, and a man who speaks fluent, colloquial English, all learned since he began his career with the Dodgers. “I’m willing to do whatever to make this team win. I’ll do whatever they want me to do.”
Ausmus said he had talked with Soria, and with set-up man Joba Chamberlain, explaining at least the early phases of their roles. Chamberlain has been so unstoppable as an eighth-inning artist that Ausmus will leave well enough alone.
He has no plans to reassign Nathan, even if Nathan has a 5.89 ERA and has had uncommon breakdowns this season.
“One thing you’d have to be careful about is if it was a pitcher who could only be a closer,” Ausmus said, speaking of Soria, and how he might otherwise have been forced to juggle two pitchers who worked ninth innings, exclusively.
“But he’s set up for Joe (in Texas, where both pitched last season). It does avoid a possible issue in the clubhouse.”
Nathan was on board with his manager, and with Soria. He also acknowledged that a 39-year-old pitcher whose historical niche will have been as a big league closer during the past decade carries with him a measure of professional pride in his role and identity.
“I’ve pulled myself out of the closer role when I felt I was not helping the club,” Nathan said, speaking to a handful of past bad spells. “Now is not one of those instances.
“With that being said, this is Brad’s ballclub, and as long as I’m here and helping this team win, I’m happy. Title or role is not the important thing.”
Soria is concerned only with doing something that had become almost foreign to the last-place Rangers.
He was thrilled, he said, at the news that arrived last night at Yankee Stadium.
The Tigers are in first place. They have a shot at winning their fourth consecutive division flag and, perhaps because their bullpen has been remodeled with his arrival, making this year’s World Series.
“It was always tough to face Detroit, and now I’m kind of relieved,” he said, speaking of some particularly nasty chores in pitching to Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, ets.
“It’s a great team. It’s a team with good starting pitching, and I know with Joe and his track record, this is gonna be just fine.”