Soria looking good, feeling good as Tigers' closer

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

You really couldn't blame Joakim Soria if he got a little exasperated with the line of questioning he gets from time to time. He never does. He politely answers all the questions.

But he has to wonder if people forgot to check the back of his baseball card before they ask things like, "Are you surprised by your success?" Or, "What are you doing differently this year?" Or, "Are you glad to be able to show people your true stuff on the mound?"

Soria is a two-time All-Star closer (2008 and 2010 with the Royals). Before the Tigers acquired him in late July last season, he had saved 32 of 34 games for the Rangers. Opposing batters were hitting .198 against him. He allowed 10 runs and struck out 42 in 311/3 innings.

He understands he struggled once he got to Detroit. He was hit hard his first couple of appearances, then was shut down with an oblique strain and never regained his arm strength.

But he didn't think a couple of bad months — including two ugly postseason appearances — would erase seven solid seasons.

"I never try to please anybody; I only try to please God, that's it," Soria said after he posted another clean one-two-three ninth inning in Kansas City for his 10th save in 10 tries. "I am finally healthy and enjoying what I am doing. When you love what you do, you go out there and have fun.

"About the fans, it is great that we can win for them because it is for them that we play. But I am not trying to please anybody."

And in not trying to please anybody, he's pleasing just about everybody associated with the Tigers.

"It's amazing," said starting right-hander Anibal Sanchez, who earned the victory. "Especially when you see the guy is so comfortable. He's just painting the zone all the time. We joke with him because he's just out there relaxing and throwing the ball in the right spot.

"Everybody feels confident when you have that kind of pitcher on the team."

That's what feels different about this Tigers team, which despite some up and downs offensively carried the second highest winning percentage in the American League into their off day Monday.

Where there used to be uncertainty, there is stability. Where there was a sense of dread entering the ninth with any lead, there is a sense of security.

And the sight of No. 38 on the mound for the ninth inning is the main reason.

"I have been feeling really good," said Soria, whose nine saves in April was a club record. "My arm has felt really good. It's fun when you are healthy and can do what you love to do."

Of his 10 saves, seven have been clean innings — no runs or walks. He's only given up one run in the 10 save situations. And he's put the tying run on base just twice. In other words, save situations have become drama-free for the Tigers for the first time in a long time.

"He looks really good on the mound now," manager Brad Ausmus said. "He's got the action back on his fastball and he's all downhill attacking hitters. He seems very confident and I think as a result, the players behind him are confident."

Soria, who has had Tommy John surgery twice (once in 2003 and again in 2011) isn't overpowering by any measure. He is 6-foot-3 and on the slender side. His fastball won't top 93 mph. The key, as Aumsus pointed out, is the cutting action he gets on that fastball. It's a natural cutter, one that, when he's right, he can make move in or out.

"I have had that my whole life," Soria said, when asked how he developed the cutter.

"Every pitch he throws moves," James McCann said after catching one of Soria's spring training outings. "I didn't see a single straight ball."

He lost the natural cut on his fastball late last season. Certainly the oblique injury contributed to that, as did the subsequent loss of arm strength.

"He came over and then missed some time with that oblique," catcher Alex Avila said. "He tried to come back sooner because we were fighting for a playoff spot. But anytime a guy is out for an extended period of time and he's unable to throw, he couldn't build his arm back up.

"Now he's had a full spring training and a full offseason. What he's doing now doesn't surprise me."

Truthfully, it probably shouldn't surprise anybody.

On deck: White Sox

Series: Three games, today-Thursday, U.S. Cellular Field, Chicago

First pitch: 8:10 tonight-Wednesday, 2:10 p.m. Thursday

TV/radio: FSD and 97.1 all three games

Probables: Tonight — RHP Shane Greene (3-1, 4.60) vs. RHP Jeff Samardzija (1-2, 4.78); Wednesday — RHP Alfredo Simon (4-1, 3.13) vs. LHP Chris Sale (2-1, 5.32); Thursday — LHP Kyle Lobstein (2-2, 3.91) vs. LHP Jose Quintana (1-2, 5.28)

Scouting report

Greene: Manager Brad Ausmus and pitching coach Jeff Jones monitored Greene's between-starts bullpen session closely (Ausmus caught it). His last two starts have been rough — 15 runs, 18 hits. The bullpen session went well, by all accounts, and no mechanical adjustments were made. Greene beat the White Sox at Comerica Park on April 19.

Samardzija: It's been an erratic ride for the talented right-hander. He threw a gem against the Tigers on April 17, allowing one run through eight innings, and then blanked the Indians for six innings. But his last outing he got rocked by the Orioles, giving up eight runs and 10 hits over five innings.