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New Tampa Bay Rays closer Rafael Soriano impresses in first spring appearance

PORT CHARLOTTE — Even before he made his highly anticipated, and generally well-received, exhibition debut on Wednesday, new Rays closer Rafael Soriano had already produced.

Several times already this spring, Soriano has cooked up a feast of native Dominican dishes and invited over teammate Carlos Peña, whose rental home is a few doors down, and others.

"He's a great cook," Peña said. "It's unreal it's so good. I won't miss it. He says, 'I'm cooking,' and I'm there for sure."

Cooking is just one of Soriano's interests that belie the tough-guy, strong-silent type image he projects around the Rays clubhouse.

He's intently into watching Spanish-language soap operas, blocking out four hours a night and recording any episodes he misses; listening nearly every other free moment to music — merengue, reggaeton, salsa and especially romantic, bachata songs (his favorite is Cristian Castro's Veronica, which he plays every morning); and seriously missing the regular Saturday afternoon family gatherings at his house in Andres Boca Chica, which start with his six kids and wife and expand from there to more than 20 relatives, who now eat, drink and play dominoes without him. (He's bringing enough with him that he's renting two condos in St. Petersburg.)

Of course, it's what Soriano delivers to the plate that the Rays are most interested in, why they acquired the 30-year-old right-hander from the Braves and signed him to a $7.25 million one-year contract as their primary offseason acquisition. "Everyone is excited to see him out there," Peña said. "He is the last piece that we needed here."

Soriano's preference for an abbreviated spring workload and delayed debut added a bit of intrigue and anticipation, even among his new teammates (some of whom snuck over to watch his batting practice sessions) and bosses.

"Totally curious," manager Joe Maddon said.

For the record, Soriano wears No. 29, uses a black glove, ran from the warning track to the close edge of the infield dirt then walked slowly to the mound, fussed with the dirt a bit and set up on the third-base side of the rubber.

"I know you ask when I'm gonna pitch and I say you guys gotta wait … I'll take my time, that's what I do," Soriano said afterward. "So today I think everybody happy to see me."

Oh, and he threw pretty well, too.

Soriano faced five Twins. He struck out the first two, Nick Punto on a fastball and Jason Kubel on a slider, then hit Michael Cuddyer on an 0-and-1 fastball that ran in, allowed a bloop double to former Ray Delmon Young and got Wilson Ramos on a liner to right.

"Pretty good stuff," Kubel said. "The heater had pretty good life to it, and he keeps it away which is good. I was looking for a slider, and it must have been a splitter or something because it dropped and caught me off guard. He looked pretty good. He'll be pretty good for them closing."

Eighteen pitches, one hit, no runs and a shroud of mystery revealed. He showed a smooth and effortless delivery ("Kinda sleepy," catcher Kelly Shoppach said), some impressive late movement on his fastball and a welcomed sense of calm and confidence.

"I like the idea that he appears to be that way," Maddon said. "He appears that he's able to handle those situations calmly. A lot of self-confidence — he's just dripping with self-confidence, and that's good."

Soriano shrugged off questions about whether he was nervous or relieved to have his debut behind him. The seven spring outings he's scheduled for (next on Saturday) are just prep work for the season. And he has some other things to work on, like canvassing his large iPod inventory to pick a song to accompany his entrance.

"Whatever he does, he's got that little swagger to him," centerfielder B.J. Upton said. "And you've got to have that as a closer."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

New Tampa Bay Rays closer Rafael Soriano impresses in first spring appearance 03/17/10 [Last modified: Thursday, March 18, 2010 12:13am]
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