Royals' Soria back in 'school'
Closer learning to neutralize opponents' counterattacks
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The grin Royals closer Joakim Soria sported last year during his rookie season should surprise no one.
Success on the mound and a family full of dentists has its benefits.
"My dad is a teacher, so education was always important in our house, to study," Soria, 23, said. "My brother and sister are dentists. My other sister is a math teacher. I loved baseball more than studying, so here I am."
But if Soria wants to stay here, and keep on smiling in 2008, he'll have to get with the family program, learning about his opponents by studying video and reviewing scouting reports. No longer the surprise of 2007, the book is out on Soria, his pitches and his tendencies.
Like it or not, school is back in session.
"I think he's smart enough to realize that as we go through Spring Training, he's going to need to know that everybody is going to be up on their reports from what happened last year and the success he had," Royals manager Trey Hillman said. "They are going to be countering his success with trying to figure up a better plan of attack playing against him this year."
Last season, Soria went 2-3 with a 2.48 ERA with a team-leading 17 saves for Kansas City after taking over the closer's job. During that stretch, he held opponents to a .187 batting average and struck out 75 batters in 69 innings. At one point, he did not allow a run in 20 1/3 consecutive innings, two innings shy of Rusty Meacham's club record of 22 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings established in 1994.
So far this spring, he is 1-0 with a 6.75 ERA in four innings of work. Soria pitched two scoreless innings on Thursday and struck out three. He gave up one hit, a double to Chris Burke.
"I am just hoping to have the same or better year than last year," Soria said. "It was a lot of responsibility. It was a big change, being a closer in the Major Leagues, but they gave me the opportunity because I have the ability. They believe in me."
It's already been quite a ride for the Monclova, Mexico, native. He arrived at Royals camp last year as an anonymous Rule 5 Draft pick who had never pitched above Class A, and a long shot to make the club after being deemed not good enough for the San Diego Padres, who had left him off their 40-man roster. Soria made the Royals and eventually stepped into the closer's role in large part because of an injury to then-closer Octavio Dotel, now with the Chicago White Sox.
A starting pitcher during his childhood, Soria honed his skills as a closer pitching for the Mexico City Diablos Rojos and the Obregon Yaquis in the Mexican League. Two days after he was selected by the Royals in the Rule 5 Draft, he threw a perfect game for Obregon against Hermosillo. He says he learned the game in the youth leagues of Monclova, where baseball, not soccer, was always the sport of choice.
"It was a process getting here," Soria said. "I'm only 23, so I never worried about what was going to happen. I never panicked. This is the road I had to go on and thank God I ended up here. There was never a reason to be under pressure or have fear. I'm confident and I don't feel insecure about my abilities when I have the ball in my hand."
If any self-doubt does creep into Soria's head, his teammate and fellow countryman, starting pitcher Jorge De La Rosa, quickly squashes it. De La Rosa, from Monterrey, is Soria's sounding board, mentor and his friend. The fact that they locker next to each other during Spring Training is not an accident.
"He's a good person and a good teammate, and besides that, he's a good pitcher," De La Rosa said. "It's great to have him here. We have the same customs and same background. We can talk about home and other things we understand that some of the other guys don't understand."
Last season, Soria earned the save in two of De La Rosa's victories, marking only the 11th and 12th time in Major League Baseball history that Mexican pitchers picked up the win and the save in the same game. Soria expects more of the same in 2008.
"For me, it's an advantage having somebody here showing you how to do things and what to watch out for, what to do," Soria said. "We identify with each other and I think he wants me to be successful for myself, but also for a lot of the Mexicans kids who are watching us."
De La Rosa's advice: improve by adjusting. Soria's response: it's the family way.
"I guess you can say our family is very prepared," Soria said. "I was the only one who didn't go off to study, but I am studying here. Everybody is studying you, so you have to study back."
Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.