Commentary

Soriano's 'bad month' raising questions

As reliever lets Yanks down yet again, one wonders -- already -- if he can handle N.Y.

Updated: April 27, 2011, 6:55 AM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPNNewYork.com

NEW YORK -- Rafael Soriano had a league-leading 45 saves for the Tampa Bay Rays last year, but every blown save or eighth-inning meltdown like he had again Tuesday night is a reminder that all of that means nothing here.

Soriano joined the New York Yankees in the unenviable position of being the reliever that general manager Brian Cashman didn't want, and a closer trying to make the mental transition back to the less exciting job of setup man.

Now, Soriano has a third question to live down after yet another blown game: Is he a budding head case who's perhaps not cut out for the pressure and scrutiny that comes with New York?

If this keeps up, those new pinstripes Soriano is wearing are going to feel like prison bars.

[+] EnlargeRafael Soriano
AP Photo/Kathy WillensWith Rafael Soriano, it's not just the awful numbers, but his defeated on-mound demeanor.

"No, no, I feel fine, I feel comfortable with the team and everything," a somber and stone-faced Soriano insisted after hitting the second batter he faced in the eighth and then coughing up a booming two-run homer to Paul Konerko that turned a 2-1 Yankees' lead into a thudding 3-2 loss at the Stadium, ruining a strong pitching performance by Ivan Nova.

"I just had a bad day … a bad month," Soriano said.

Yankees manager Joe Girardi insisted the same things afterward, but really what else is Girardi going to say?

Soriano allowed only 12 earned runs all of last season.

He's already given up nine runs in just one month as a Yankee.

Tuesday marked the third time Soriano has allowed multiple runs in a game. That's something he did only twice in 64 appearances last year.

If this was happening to someone else, it might be important to emphasize right about here that the season is just four weeks old. But Soriano's rough start has only revived the same whispers that trailed him for weeks as he sat on the free-agent market last winter. Back then he was one of the rarest creatures you'll ever see in baseball -- a closer with a 1.73 ERA who didn't have a zillion teams climbing over each other to sign him.

But plenty of other teams -- even some unnamed sources in the Yankees' organization -- made no secret about why there was a lack of interest: the so-called "makeup" concerns that seem to be haunting Soriano now that he's here.

"I think he'll be able to shut [the pressure] out. Let's not forget he saved 45, 46 games last year," Girardi stressed. "And in a tight race."

But even Girardi backpedaled a little when reminded that closing games in Tampa ain't exactly New York.

"Well, right. Yeah. Correct," Girardi allowed. "It's a different animal here. But I haven't seen anything to tell me he can't handle it."

Girardi has seen the same thing everyone else has, all right. He just can't afford to feed the panic monster that always trails the Yankees, and let alone someone who has been mentioned as Mariano Rivera's heir apparent. Especially not on a day when the Yankees' No. 3 starter Phil Hughes underwent medical tests but still got no answers about what's causing his dead arm, and No. 4 starter Ivan Nova had one of his best starts as a major leaguer.

Nova got into the seventh inning for the first time in his career, stuck around for 92 pitches (one more than his previous personal high), and showed maybe he is making progress at learning how to work his way through the order a second and third time. He surrendered only five hits in his 6 2/3 innings of work before Soriano washed it all away.

"Frustrating," Girardi said.

But rather than dwell on Soriano's lack of command or the hanging pitch he served up to Konerko -- "It was a little bit high; I was trying to go down and away," Soriano explained -- Girardi preferred to emphasize that Soriano's velocity was "the best it's been."

Someone asked Girardi if he'd thought at all about moving Soriano out of the eighth-inning role and he quickly said, "No, no." He emphasized he still has confidence in him.

But it can't help Soriano that the Yankee Stadium crowd already groans and boos when he starts to wobble, sometimes even before he coughs up a run. Nor does Soriano's on-mound demeanor -- the hang-dog looks, the little giveaways that he's getting frustrated when a bad inning starts to snowball on him as it did again Tuesday night. The visuals only add to the impression Soriano is apt to get rattled now and then.

After the home run to Konerko, Soriano gave up a walk and a hit before finally wriggling out of the inning. The Yankees almost bailed him out in the bottom of ninth by getting two runners on. But White Sox right fielder Brent Lillibridge made two sensational catches -- one at the right-field wall on Alex Rodriguez, then an even better grab as he ran full speed toward the right-field line and laid out to snare a liner by Robinson Cano to end the game.

Just like that, another bad night in Soriano's bad month cemented into place. Now the bad questions are being whispered louder than ever: Does he have what it takes to pitch in New York?

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