Determined Soria redefines early ST arrival

Determined Soria redefines early ST arrival

Determined Soria redefines early ST arrival
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Don't try to tell closer Joakim Soria that the Royals' Spring Training just began on Tuesday. He was way, way ahead of schedule. By about three months.

Soria hit the fields and weight room at the Surprise complex in late November and has been grinding away ever since. So when he joined the first official workout for pitchers and catchers on Tuesday, he possessed a sculpted body, a sound delivery and extreme confidence.

Soria usually spends most of the offseason in his native Mexico. This time, after a very un-Soria-like 2011 season, he headed to Arizona. Oh, he went home for Christmas but figured the best gift he could give himself, his family and his team was an invigorated presence for 2012. It made sense.

"We've got all the facilities to work out," Soria said. "You've got the place, the trainers, the conditioning guys. You've got everything here, so I started my Spring Training in November."

In Soria's first four seasons with Kansas City, he registered a 2.01 ERA. After becoming the full-time closer on July 31, 2007, his rookie year, he had converted 122 of 132 save opportunities -- 92.4 percent, second only to Yankees legend Mariano Rivera in that same period.

But last season, Soria's save efficiency dropped to 80 percent (28 out of 35) and his ERA ballooned by two runs, to 4.03. His seven blown saves were more than half the 13 he had in the previous four seasons. Things got so bleak in late May that he and manager Ned Yost decided he could use a brief hiatus from closing.

What went wrong? Yost put the blame on mechanical glitches in Soria's delivery.

"Just [not] getting down and finishing your pitches," Yost said. "When he finishes his pitches, his command is as impeccable as anybody in the league. He just got out of whack and struggled to get the ball down. Which flattens the ball out, makes the ball look bigger, easier to hit."

And which is why Soria gave up career highs in hits (60), runs (29) and home runs (7).

"It was one of those years you don't want to remember," he said.

While Soria doesn't dwell on last season, he acknowledged that the disappointing results spurred him to the November work in Arizona.

"Everything comes together, because you have to invest in yourself. This is my profession. I don't want to have the same year I had last year," he said. "I want to improve and try to do better than my other years, so that's why I came in here early, worked hard with the guys here and I feel good."

After last year's early troubles -- punctuated by a 6.55 ERA and four blown saves in his first five chances -- Soria's post-June 1 ERA was 2.58 and he converted 21 of 23 opportunities. The 28 saves were his fewest since his rookie year total of 17.

"I felt good at the end of the season. My delivery and everything was perfect, and there were better results than at the end of the season," Soria said. "It was one of those years."

Yost is certain that Soria is OK.

"It was a mechanical deal," Yost said. "He's back to being Jack."

If not, the Royals have alternatives on the roster. One is Greg Holland, who as a rookie last year sizzled with a 1.80 ERA, a 5-1 record, four saves and 74 strikeouts in 60 innings.

"[Holland] had a great year and I hope he can do the same thing. He's a great player and a great person and I hope he gets better every year and we have him for a long time," Soria said.

Another fallback is Jonathan Broxton, twice an All-Star as the Dodgers' closer and a big guy who had 114 strikeouts in 76 innings in 2009. He's coming off the uncertainty of elbow surgery last September.

Broxton and Jose Mijares, a left-hander, are expected to lend added veteran presence to the bullpen. That was a quality held only by Soria last year as he presided over a rookie-filled relief corps.

One of those rookies, Everett Teaford, said he and the others learned a lot from Soria.

"Just by watching him -- the guy does the exact same thing every single game. When you're going good or going bad, you have to stick with that routine. You have to have something to keep you as level as possible," Teaford said. "He doesn't say much, but it's easy to watch him. And if you have a question, he's easy to approach which was nice."

Soria appreciated the compliment but credited bullpen coach Steve Foster and bullpen catcher Bill Duplissea with helping the youngsters as well.

"These [young pitchers] always improved, they're always on top of the game," Soria said. "They were rookies, but they didn't act like that when they were pitching. They had a really good year for being a really young bullpen. Except for myself -- I had an off year -- but I hope last year helped them a lot."

Yost wants to have Soria primed to pitch two-inning stints by the end of Spring Training. Not that the skipper wants to use him that way very often.

"My plan is to lean heavy on the bullpen early in the year, and if there are days where we've had back-to-back-to-back games where Broxton, Holland and [Aaron] Crow have been used, we could find ourselves in a situation where we'll need Jack to get us five outs," Yost said. "Jack can pitch two innings as effectively as any closer in the game and more effectively than most."

It's just the first day of camp but Yost is convinced that the Soria of old is back.

"Zero doubt," Yost said firmly.

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