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Detroit — Joakim Soria likes to be the closer, but he likes Joe Nathan even more.

It was, after all, Nathan, the veteran, who made a significant and immediate impact on Soria, the youngster, during Soria's first All-Star appearance in 2008. Nathan, also an All-Star that year at Yankee Stadium, went right up to Soria and took him under his wing that week.

Five years later, they would become teammates in Texas, and a little bit after that, Detroit.

So the latest news on Nathan — he suffered a setback Wednesday, no doubt, though the severity remains in question — hit hard for Soria.

"It's always sad," Soria said Wednesday afternoon, before the third game of a four-game set against the Yankees at Comerica Park. "I have two Tommy John surgeries, so I know exactly how he feels. Believe me, I wish it's just a minor setback and he can come back and as soon as he can. I'm pulling for him all the time. He knows that."

Soria, who at 30 is 10 years Nathan's junior, is back in a groove again, and back as the closer while Nathan has dealt with elbow issues since the spring.

After a rough debut with the Tigers in 2014, Soria has been nearly perfect in the early going this season, posting a nifty 5-for-5 in saves, and in his last five outings, he hasn't allowed a hit, walk or a run.

It's been a welcome sight for Tigers fans, those easy-as-pie ninth innings from a closer. It hasn't been that way much in Detroit, not with Todd Jones, or Fernando Rodney, or Jose Valverde, or, last year, with Nathan.

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus has shrugged off comments about who his closer would be when Nathan came back, and now he doesn't have to say a word about it for a while. With no idea when Nathan's coming back, Soria is the closer indefinitely. It's a role he shined in with the Royals, and before last July's trade, the Rangers.

"I know this role, I know this role," Soria said. "I have done that before, and I understand what it takes to go out there in the ninth inning and just shut down the game."

Soria has almost always had some role, mostly a closer, but also as a setup man in 2013, when Nathan was the closer.

Last year after coming to the Tigers, though, he had no role. He was used in a variety of situations, and it just didn't work.

Some suspect he simply struggled with the transition. But he also, apparently, came to the Tigers with an injury, and then with the Tigers he suffered a second injury (side) that sidelined him for a month.

The results still weren't there; he struggled mightily in the playoffs as the Tigers were swept out of the American League Division Series by the Orioles.

"He's certainly pitching like he's more comfortable," said Ausmus, who suspects the injury played a big part in Soria's struggles last season. Soria, for his part, flatly refuses to use that as an excuse. "He's pitching like how we thought he would pitch.

"I just don't think he ever got into a groove. I'm sure coming to a new team played a part in that. He looks comfortable on the mound, for sure."

Soria is a unique closer, in that he doesn't throw 100, nor does he have to.

Because he sure can pitch, using pinpoint location and some good off-speed stuff to get hitters out one right after another.

"Well, he locates extremely well," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "He can cut it, he can do some different things with the baseball, but he relies on location. And he's really good at it."

Soria only hits around 90 with his fastball, though both catcher Alex Avila and Ausmus talk about how that 90 seems much faster, because Soria hides the ball well from hitters during his delivery. He's "sneaky" fast, they say.

That would explain how Soria, after missing 2012 with another Tommy John surgery, still has managed to average more than a strikeout an inning since the start of 2013.

This season, outside of the Nathan news, couldn't have started much better for Soria. The Tigers have won 11 games, and he's saved five of them and won one of them.

"It's early in the season. Like I said, we try to enjoy it every time we go out there," said Soria, sporting a trimly-kept beard that he says will absolutely not get to Joba Chamberlain length. "I'm just glad the fans like it right now. Everything is clicking for the team, and hopefully it stays the same through the whole season."

And hopefully, Soria said, Nathan will be in on the success.

"He's a tremendous teammate," said Soria, "and he teaches us a lot."

tpaul@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/tonypaul1984

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