Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 16, 2013

Soriano Turns Back The Clock

A NOTE TO READERS: Travel between New York and New Hampshire delayed this post by a day. Sunday’s post will also be delayed until Monday, in order to provide coverage of the U.S. Amateur Golf Championship, now being contested at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts. The regular schedule will resume next Thursday.

We Yankee fans have known since before the season started that this was going to be a difficult year in the Bronx. Many now point to the plethora of injuries that ravaged the starting lineup, and the team’s self-imposed austerity with an eye toward getting under next year’s salary cap in order to reset the luxury tax rate that in turn limited general manager Brian Cashman’s options for signing replacements and fill-ins. But the truth is that even if Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez had been in the lineup on Opening Day and for every game since, there’s no guarantee that the results would have been that much different from what the likes of Travis Hafner, Lyle Overbay, Vernon Wells, plus the ever-changing cast of characters that have manned the left side of the Yankees’ infield have produced. The Yankees were at best going to be an old team this year, and declining numbers from several pinstriped stars would scarcely have registered as surprising.

Still the cast-offs, retreads, and minor league call-ups who manager Joe Girardi penciled into his lineup card every night started off surprisingly well, peaking at 12 games over .500 in late May. That was a pace that couldn’t possibly be maintained, but even at the All-Star break New York was still in contact with Boston in the AL East, and only three games out of a Wild Card spot. But the Yankees played 15 of 18 games on the road coming out of the break, and the second of the two road trips that bookended a brief three game home stand put New York in a deep hole. They went just 2-6 visiting the Dodgers, Padres, and White Sox to fall into a double-digit deficit in the division and seven games back of the second Wild Card, with three other teams in the way. The Playoff Odds Report at Baseball Prospectus forecasts the likely records of all 30 teams based on a complex simulation using run differentials and performance versus projections to date plus the relative strength of each franchise’s remaining schedule. Last weekend the Report gave the Yankees a scant 2.6% probability of making the playoffs.

Computers can crunch a vast array of variables with lightning speed, but they can’t take into account injuries or hot streaks, nor do they know anything about pitching matchups or the impact of an unexpected rain delay. There probably weren’t many computer simulations run on June 21st that predicted the Dodgers would win 40 of their next 48 games starting the following day. Still with six weeks to go in the longest season a fan doesn’t need an algorithm to understand that October baseball may well pass the Bronx by this year. If it does it will be largely due to repeatedly abject performances by the Yankees offense. They may be forever known as the Bronx Bombers, but this year’s edition haven’t even been very good bunters, and the home run siren at the Stadium has taken far too many nights off. All of which made my most recent visit to Gotham seem like a blast from the past in more ways than one.

Once upon a time Derek Jeter and Alfonso Soriano were tabbed as the Yankees middle infield combo for a generation. Drafted by the Yankees in 1992, Jeter’s first full season with the big club was 1996 when he made nearly as many errors at shortstop as he clubbed doubles at the plate, but still was voted the AL Rookie of the Year. Soriano arrived in the Bronx five years later, after the Yankees signed him away from an unhappy experience in Japan with the Hiroshima Toyo Carp. Soriano placed third in the 2001 Rookie of the Year balloting, and was a two-time All-Star while with the Yankees. But the Yankees broke up their young double play tandem prior to the 2004 season, sending Soriano to Texas as part of the trade that brought Alex Rodriguez to New York. He went on to play for the Rangers, Nationals, and Cubs in a career that has brought him five more All-Star nods, though none since 2008. In Chicago, most Cubs fans would say that Soriano never really lived up to the rich free agent contract he signed in 2007. With the Cubs still in rebuilding mode and the Yankees desperately in need of offense, a deal that brought Soriano back to his original big league squad was consummated just before the non-waiver trade deadline at the end of July.

So there he was, no longer at second base but now out in left field on a lovely Tuesday evening, as I made my way to my seat along the first base line. A line of storms had moved out to sea as I made my drive down from New Hampshire, taking with them both the heat and the humidity that had enveloped the city. Like the peaceful weather, there was little to presage the thunder that was about to come in either of Soriano’s first two at-bats. He went down swinging in both the 1st and 3rd innings, as New York and an uncharacteristically wild CC Sabathia fell behind Anaheim in the early going. The strikeouts were not particularly surprising, as Soriano had fanned at a pace of once for every three at-bats since arriving in the Bronx.

The visitors were holding on to their 3-2 lead in the last of the 5th, when he came to the plate for the third time on the night. This time there would be no strikeout. Instead Soriano squared on the third pitch from Jason Vargas and sent the ball rocketing into the lower deck seats in left field. With Eduardo Nunez on first the blast put the Yankees in front for the first time in the game. Just one inning later Soriano was back in the batter’s box, this time with two men out and Lyle Overbay at third. The Yankees had already scored once in the inning, and after working the count full Soriano added to his RBI total and New York’s lead with a clean single to center. In the 7th, with the Yankees now on top 9-3, he notched his third hit in as many innings. This time he sent a full count slider from Joe Blanton to the opposite field, where the ball had just enough carry to bounce off the top of the wall and into the stands for a three-run homer. On the night Soriano was 3 for 6 with 3 runs scored and 6 RBIs.

Twenty-four hours later it was another gorgeous August evening, and the Yankees newest addition picked right up where he had left off the night before. With two outs in the opening frame, a Robinson Cano single, Alex Rodriguez double, and Curtis Granderson walk loaded the bases for Soriano. He promptly sent Jered Weaver’s second offering soaring into the evening sky. Straight out to dead center the ball flew, and for the second night in a row the Soriano blast had just enough, as it bounced off the top of the wall and into Monument Park for a grand slam that brought everyone in the stands to their feet with one mighty collective roar. So began a second night of the Yankees returning to their Bomber ways. Eleven pinstriped players crossed home plate before the game was through. Two were sent home by Soriano when he doubled off the battered Weaver in the bottom of the 2nd. Then in the bottom of the 5th he tallied the ninth run off of the Angels’ starter with a long solo shot to left, his fourth home run in two nights. After a walk in his final at-bat of the evening Soriano had a two-game line of 6 for 9 plus a base on balls, 13 RBIs, 6 runs scored, 4 home runs and a double. After leading the Yankees to wins of 14-7 and 11-3, it’s safe to say those two early strikeouts had been forgotten.

His bat remained hot on Thursday afternoon, but this time all four hits in five at-bats were singles. That reflected the Yankees difficulties in the final game against the Angels. While they pounded out 15 hits, only three were for extra bases and none left the park. The Angels’ C.J. Wilson and the five relievers who followed him were often in trouble, but they limited the damage and ultimately ended New York’s modest four game winning streak. Still, Soriano’s 14 RBIs during the series were the most in a single series by any big league player this year. No Yankee has been so prolific at the plate in a single series since Joe DiMaggio, 75 years ago.

Of course it would be silly to suggest that a well-traveled 37-year old slugger with a propensity for striking out is somehow going to magically lead the Yankees to the promised land of October baseball. While the little Soriano-led run did bump their odds at the Baseball Prospectus forecast all the way to 6.3%; I’ve seen enough of this edition of my team to know without benefit of sabermetric formulas that their climb to the playoffs remains sharply uphill, with success decidedly unlikely. But even if it was nothing more than two happy evenings in August, for a Yankees fan it was worth seeing. A one-time star in pinstripes returned to the fold and gave us so many reasons to cheer, in the process reminding us of why we cheered so heartily in years gone by. At the very least, it gave us something to talk about besides A-Rod.

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Responses

  1. If the Yanks somehow make it into the playoffs this year, they need to add a 5th head up on Mt. Rushmore, Joe Girardi (or perhaps Soriano.)

    • HA! That is so true Bill! But of course one of the essential elements of the job description of “fan” is the ability to maintain faith in an utterly improbable outcome, even in the face of overwhelming empirical evidence that it isn’t going to occur. Thanks as always,
      Mike


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