Young Soria a breath of fresh air in KC

Royals lucky to have landed Soria

KANSAS CITY -- Joakim Soria has been a middle reliever, a set-up man and a closer. Royals manager Buddy Bell doesn't rule out Soria as a possible starter.

Busy guy, this Soria. Lots of roles. And he's been in the Major Leagues less than 2 1/2 months.

Already Soria has pitched in 23 games, posted his first victory, notched 10 saves, spent time on the disabled list, picked up two nicknames, and made the Padres wonder why they let him go.

"Soria certainly has been one of the great stories of the year thus far -- not just for the Royals but throughout all of baseball," Royals general manager Dayton Moore said.

Not much argument there. The 23-year-old right-hander from Monclova, Mexico, leaped from Obregon obscurity to pitching prodigy in a flash. He's been like a youngster breaking a piñata at a birthday party.

"I've got the skills to do the job so I enjoy myself like a little kid," he said.

The Royals latched onto Soria in the Rule 5 Draft last winter when San Diego left him unprotected, hoping he'd slide through. Maybe the Padres didn't realize that Moore had decided to pay more attention to the Mexican Leagues and had special assistant Louie Medina scouting players.

Soria spent most of 2006 with the Mexico City Red Devils; he had 15 saves and a 3.89 ERA in 39 relief appearances. Then, in winter ball, he switched to starting for Obregon and was 9-1 with a 2.41 ERA in 13 starts.

Medina pitched the Soria story to Moore.

"The Mexican League is a competitive league, it's a man's league and he had 15 saves there last year so it's really a no-brainer," Moore said.

So the Royals plucked Soria in the Winter Meetings grab-bag at Orlando, Fla. Who? What? Why? Two days later, Soria pitched a perfect game for Obregon against Hermosillo. Oh, that's why.

Funny, but that had happened before in the same town.

"Everybody remembered," Soria's mother, Jovita, recalled. "They said, 'Is this the same kid who pitched the perfect game here back in....?' "

Sure was. When Soria was about 10 years old and pitching in a pre-national tournament for the team from Coahuila state, he pitched a perfect game in Obregon.

Déjà vu.

He is the youngest of four children raised by Jose Manuel and Jovita Soria. Sister Yosy is a mathematics teacher in junior high, brother Jose Manuel Jr. is an odontologist and a teacher, and sister Alejandra is also an odontologist.

In Monclova, the capital of Coahuila, there was a large green area behind the Soria home. It's where the kids played baseball and where Jose Manuel Soria, a high school mathematics teacher, coached and organized a neighborhood league.

When little Agus -- Joakim's middle name is Agustin and that's all anybody called him until he turned pro -- was 4 years old, he was so good that he was selected for Coahuila's team in the pre-nationals. Most of the kids on that team were 5 or 6 years old but Agus was the pitcher.

Through the years the Soria house was a popular spot for ballplayers. When Joakim was pitching for the Mexico City Red Devils, the entire team came to the home for dinner. Jovita Soria must be a good cook. Early in April, someone from the Red Devils called and asked if the team could stop by while in Monclova. Never mind that Joakim was no longer with the team.

The Sorias had to politely say no.

"I'm sorry," Jovita told them, "but I'm going to see my son play in Kansas City. If I wasn't, I'd be happy to cook for you."

Her son likes to eat, favoring Mexican food but also somewhat partial to pizza with mushrooms, ham and extra cheese.

"It's hard for me to gain weight but it's easy for me to lose," he said.

Jovita Soria is hard-pressed to think of any mischief young Agus caused as a kid. Well, there was the time that she got a call from his English teacher. It seems that Agus, caught up in a tournament, had neglected to write a paper. His mother made him stay up most of the night to complete the assignment.

"Baseball always came first," she said.

This isn't a plot quite like on "The Closer," the TV police drama, but the Royals' closer story has some intriguing twists and turns. Here's the script:

The Royals hire Octavio Dotel, the repaired veteran, to close their games. Then Dotel tweaks his rib cage in Spring Training and it's Dotel in the Heartbreak Hotel. What's to be done? Who will close?

David Riske has a rocky April. Joel Peralta blows three saves. Jimmy Gobble is really a situational lefty.

Then this kid from the Rule 5 Draft shows he can throw strikes and get people out. On April 10, at Toronto, he pitches two perfect innings and gets his first save. Later in the month, he picks up two more.

Hmmm turns to ah-ha! In May, Soria is the guy and gets seven more saves in 10 opportunities.

"What impresses me the most is that he's so young but yet he's so composed. And, to be pitching as a rookie and Rule 5 guy in that significant of a role and do well is pretty impressive," catcher John Buck says.

But what's to happen when Dotel comes off the DL? That dilemma virtually solves itself. Dotel is activated on the same day that Soria pitches against the Indians and has a sore shoulder.

Now Soria goes on the disabled list. Just one chapter, but not a bad little script.

When the lean, 6-foot-3 Soria was piling up saves, there were heady comparisons with the Father of the Saving Grace, Mariano Rivera of the Yankees.

There was some resemblance in the delivery and in the dip of his split-fastball. The Mexican kid was deceptive.

"Like [Mariano] Rivera, even though Rivera throws harder, his pitches look harder than they actually are," Royals pitching coach Bob McClure said. "Like [Todd] Jones for Detroit, his ball looks harder than it registers," McClure said.

What prompts that particular mystique?

"It's God-given," McClure said with a shrug.

Soria has patterned himself after another famous pitcher.

"Greg Maddux -- always," he said. "He throws where he wants. If he wants to go in, it's in. ...I would have liked to have seen Fernando."

Ah, yes, Fernando Valenzuela, the numero uno pitching idol of Mexico. Arguably the most famous baseball name to emerge from that country. In fact, Soria is only the 99th Mexican-born player to reach the Major Leagues. He's the seventh to play for the Royals; the others are Jorge De La Rosa, Elmer Dessens, Dennys Reyes, Aurelio Lopez, German Barranca and Jorge Orta.

Soria sort of wanted to be the milestone 100th on that list but at least two sources put him at No. 99.

"I don't really care because I'm in the big leagues," he said.

And, if the endorsements prove true, he could be here for a long time.

"The thing that stands out about him is his presence, his poise, his baseball savvy," Moore said. "He has pitching skill and the command of his fastball is very good. I don't think we've really had a chance to see his true assortment of pitches because of the role he's been in."

Mostly, as the closer, Soria threw his fastball and slider. But he has more.

"It's hard to pick him up. His ball has a natural cut to it. Not as much as [Rafael] Soriano but it does have a cut to it. That's just his natural fastball," Buck said.

"He has a great slider and curveball and can throw his change-up on any count. You have to kind of speed up your bat to get the head up to hit the cutter and, all of a sudden, he throws a changeup and it makes it difficult -- sitting in-between those two is a tough place to be as a hitter."

The kid throws strikes. In his 24 2/3 innings, he's struck out 28 and walked just nine unintentionally. Opponents are hitting just .231 against him. His ERA is 3.28. Soria has yet to give up a home run.

And he's one cool customer. Nothing seems to rattle him.

"He pitched like five years in Mexico so he doesn't feel the pressure," said fellow countryman De La Rosa. "He throws a lot of strikes and good pitches. He's not afraid of anything. He goes after the hitter."

Royals teammates swear De La Rosa and Soria are joined at the hip. That's natural, since both are from Mexico. You see one of them, you usually see the other.

Not far behind, generally, is Peralta, the reliever from the Dominican Republic. He's Soria's card-playing partner for Casino or poker.

"He's really a good kid. Everybody likes him," Peralta said. "He tells a lot of jokes in Spanish. He told two or three a day in Spring Training. Some of them were stupid but the way he told them was funny."

Soria is an outgoing person with a ready smile.

"He acts the way he should," reliever Jimmy Gobble said. "A great kid. You know he's got a good heart. And he's a good pitcher. He carries himself in the clubhouse very well and the veterans notice that."

"His nickname is 'Boso Chulo,' " Peralta said. "That means 'Sweet Mustache.' "

Pitcher Leo Nunez laid that name on Soria, who was sporting a mustache and short beard at the time.

"When he first came in, he was known as a young guy that looks like Richie Valens," team captain Mike Sweeney said.

"Then in Spring Training, he pitched and everybody said he's probably going to make our staff. In batting practice, guys were raving about this command, his pitches were hard to hit."

When Soria quickly hit his stride during the season, another nickname surfaced.

"We know him, affectionately, as 'El Cerrador,' " Sweeney said. "The Closer."

For now, though, Soria has yielded that title to Dotel.

Bell made the call. Dotel has the experience, of course, and closing was why he was signed. Besides, the Royals want to be cautious with Soria because they see him as an important part of their future.

They don't want to blow out his arm.

Been there, done that.

Soria, who signed originally with Valenzuela's alma mater, the Dodgers, missed the 2003 season. His right elbow was re-constructed via Tommy John surgery. The next year the Dodgers released him.

He pitched in Mexico City in 2005 and was signed by the Padres. Yet he was somewhat anonymous in the San Diego organization, pitching just seven games for Class A Fort Wayne last season.

"Where was he pitching?" the Indians' Josh Barfield asked after he made the final out in a Soria save.

Barfield looked surprised when he was told that it was for the Padres.

"I was with the Padres the last five years and never heard of him," he said.

Certainly, Soria will be heard of again and often. Right now, the Royals are taking it slow. For the first time since coming off the DL, he pitched to five hitters Friday night against the Phillies. Bell pulled him with one out, two on in the ninth.

"He got out of sync. He really got out of whack there after the first out in the ninth," Bell said. "But same stuff -- he had no problems."

Dotel rescued Soria and got his third save. But Soria's work load is about to pick up.

"Probably after Monday, we'll be able to use him on back-to-back days -- more in the seventh or eighth innings," Bell said. "I'm not going to put him in the closer role because I want somebody that's more consistently available in that role."

At least that's the plan for now.

Soria can be expected to do the unexpected. But regardless of the role, there's one thing that's certain about the young pitcher.

"A great steal for the Royals," Sweeney said.

Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.