Detroit — For the first time in what seems like a long time — all due respect to Jose Valverde's "perfect" season, which wasn't nearly as good on the periphery as it seemed — the Tigers haven't been able to fully trust a closer.
Now, they can.
And he's not even technically their closer.
Joakim Soria has been nearly perfect this season, and has been absolutely perfect his last three outings — two saves in nailbiter games in Pittsburgh, and the win in Friday's 2-1 victory over the Chicago White Sox at Comerica Park.
"When we faced him when he was with Texas and Kansas City, he was tough, because he's deceiving and he's a little sneaky," Tigers catcher Alex Avila said. "Just the way he throws.
"It's much easier to catch him than hit off him."
Soria has pitched in six games this season, all but one of them as the interim closer — since Joe Nathan went on the disabled list following Game 2 of the season with a forearm issue. And in 4-2/3 innings, he's allowed one run on two hits while walking nobody.
The run even was fluky, as it was in a 9-6 Tigers win over the Indians, and the runner who eventually scored only was in scoring position because of defensive indifference — a stolen base that doesn't count as a stolen base, because the defense makes no attempt to prevent it in a game that's well in hand.
The last three outings, though, have been extra special — nine up and nine down.
Soria, 30, doesn't do it with the weapon that most closers have, velocity.
Soria rarely goes much over 90 mph, but he's got such an easy, slow delivery that the ball seems to get to the hitters quicker than it actually does.
Plus, he's got excellent, late movement, particularly on pitches on the black of the plate. Because of that movement, hitters who think they should do damage on such pitches often don't make good contact — like Adam LaRoche in the ninth inning Friday.
LaRoche got what he thought was a good pitch to hit, took a mighty hack, but just got under it for a lazy flyball to right field to end the inning.
"He'll throw that 90 on the outside corner, it looks like it's gonna be a ball," Avila said. "And in your mind, you're like, 'Man, I should hit this guy,' but he always comes out getting outs."
Soria was a closer in Kansas City, then a setup man in Texas (behind Nathan), then a closer (once Nathan left for Detroit).
When Soria was traded to the Tigers last July, they acquired him because they needed any and all bullpen help, but they never really settled on a role for him. It was a tough transition. He was pitching earlier in games, he was coming in with runners on base, he was being asked to go multiple innings.
All together, it just didn't work — and he struggled, mightily, in his Detroit debut.
But the Tigers knew what they had in Soria, which is why they picked up up his $7 million option. He's a proven setup man and closer — excellent insurance, considering the woes Nathan had a year ago.
No surprise, then, he's making the most of his closing opportunities, which will make for a delicate situation for Tigers brass once Nathan is ready to pitch again.
That's a story for another day. Soria's performance is the story for today — a performance made possible by an exceptional curveball, and pinpoint control. Last season, before arriving in Detroit, he had only walked six batters in 44-1/3 innings.
"He's got great command of the fastball. That's the big thing," said Avila, who is 0-for-4 against Soria. "He could hit a gnat's (behind) right on the side of the plate."