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Ex-closer keeps tabs on Rafael Soriano as he prepares to top Tampa Bay Rays franchise save mark

Roberto Hernandez, who had 43 saves in 1999 for a 69-93 club, said, “I wish we had that offense when I had my good year.”

Times (1999)

Roberto Hernandez, who had 43 saves in 1999 for a 69-93 club, said, “I wish we had that offense when I had my good year.”

ST. PETERSBURG — When the Rays regained the lead over the Yankees late in Wednesday's game, Roberto Hernandez made sure he stayed up to watch the end of it at his Gulfport home.

"I knew Soriano was going to get in," he said.

Hernandez, who has held the Rays' season record for saves, 43, since 1999, has kept up with current closer Rafael Soriano since they met two months ago.

And when Soriano got save No. 43 by shutting down the Yankees late Wednesday for a 4-3 win, Hernandez was proud.

"I was rooting for him," Hernandez, 45, said Thursday. "Records are made to be broken. I was talking with (Rays travel director) Jeff Ziegler and said: 'I wish we had that offense back when I had my good year. … I had 43 saves for 69 wins.' "

Hernandez's record season came in a different time in Rays history, during a 69-93 season.

"In my first season (1998), we beat the Yankees once all year," he said. "And George Steinbrenner blew a tantrum."

But Hernandez has pitched in a pennant race, with the White Sox in 1993, and said that's what makes Soriano's success (43 saves in 46 chances) so impressive.

"Watching the way he attacks the hitters, he attacks the hitters just like I would, no looking back," Hernandez said. " 'Here's my best stuff; beat me if you can.' It's not easy pitching in the AL East, and he's probably been the dominant pitcher in the AL East.

"He's doing it in a pennant race, doing it on a team that's battling New York for the best record in baseball, which is not easy to do."

Soriano, 30, may be one of the best acquisitions in baseball from the offseason, stabilizing the Rays' bullpen since getting traded by the Braves and signing a one-year, $7.25 million deal. Nine of Soriano's saves have come against the Red Sox and Yankees; he has given up two runs total over 13 innings against them.

"When I face the Yankees or Boston, I like to face them because everybody knows what I've got," Soriano said. "When I am 100 percent, whatever happens, happens; I'm not going to be scared to pitch."

Hernandez met Soriano through bullpen coach Bobby Ramos and found him "very respectful, very humble."

"Every time he's in, I make sure I'm watching," Hernandez said.

He received text messages from friends as Soriano got closer to his mark. He thought Soriano would hit it Sunday in Toronto, when he gave up a two-run walkoff homer to Adam Lind. Stopping at a restaurant on the way back from his son's baseball tournament in Winter Haven, Hernandez told Roberto Jr., 16, to check on the game at the bar TV.

"He said, 'Dad, walkoff,' " Hernandez said. "I said, 'Hey, he might have to do it at home.' "

Soriano said he has noticed that after some Rays losses, in the clubhouse "everyone here is like somebody died." So Sunday he tried to set a different tone, playing music afterward. Soriano then pitched a scoreless inning in each of the next three games.

"You have to have a real short memory to be a good closer, and he does," manager Joe Maddon said. "It speaks to his makeup and his tenacity and his calmness; he's very calm in the eye of the storm. On top of that, he's a very good pitcher, not just a closer."

Soriano, who could break Hernandez's record this weekend, has said his next goal is surpassing Francisco Cordero, who, in 2004 with Texas, saved 49 games, the most by a Dominican.

"He's got a chance," Hernandez said. "I would love to see it myself."

Joe Smith can be reached at joe smith@sptimes.com.

Ex-closer keeps tabs on Rafael Soriano as he prepares to top Tampa Bay Rays franchise save mark 09/16/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 17, 2010 10:38am]
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