He came out of the dugout for BP at 4:30 yesterday, smiling at full wattage, taking hugs from everyone around the cage. At that point, you already knew that anything out of his mouth would be superfluous, but you were going to hear it anyway:
“This is my house,” Alfonso Soriano said. “This is my home.”
It’s been nearly 10 years since he left the Bronx – nobody thought to point out that he actually played across the street – but the logistics of the heart were all that mattered here.
For the folks who stood and declared their (for now) unconditional love last night, he was still the kid who hit the walk-off homer off Kazuhiro Sasaki to give the Yanks a 3-1 lead in the 2001 ALCS that put a 116-win Seattle team in its place. He was the kid who had the walk-off hit in Game 5 of the 2001 World Series, a.k.a. The Brosius Game. He was the kid who three days later golfed a torpedo off arguably the greatest postseason pitcher in history, Curt Schilling, to put the Yanks three outs away from a title that never came.
And then, because the Yankees were so dazzled by a better player, Soriano moved on. He was traded for a guy named Alex Rodriguez, he made five more All-Star teams, he turned baseball on its ear by founding the 40-40-40 club in Washington, and then he got incredibly rich in Chicago.
But this is home, he said on a Friday night that almost felt like progress was possible again – though that was quickly pulverized when C.C. Sabathia took the mound to perform his monthly face-plant against Tampa Bay. But it was right there on the clubhouse door, before the 10-6 defeat, actual proof that Joe Girardi no longer has to run out a lineup that looks like that thing he found in the discount bin Thursday in Texas.
If you happened to miss it: RF Suzuki, 3B Lillibridge, DH Cano, LF Wells, SS Nunez, 2B Adams, 1B Overbay, CF Mesa, C Romine.
If everything goes according to plan (Quad Willing), the Yankees lineup this afternoon against the Rays will start like this:
CF Gardner, SS Jeter, 2B Cano, LF Soriano. . . .
And after that, frankly, it hardly matters. For the first time since anyone can remember, Girardi will have something that includes four guys who can both jab and slug with regularity, after the theft of Soriano from the Cubs for a minor-league pitcher.
Yes, don’t say it: He’s 37, not 27. While that would appear to be a legit concern on a superannuated team that keeps breaking bones, you find help where you can get it – and never has a team needed the kind of help that Soriano can provide.
He has, in fact, has hit more home runs during the month of July -- eight, tied for Adrian Beltre for most in the majors -- than the entire Yankees team (seven).
“I hope it makes us better. A lot better,” Girardi said. “You’re able to split up your lefties by putting him in the middle, and hopefully it helps our lineup.”
Finding a righty who can do that has proven to be a fool’s errand. The guy they hoped would be their chief power source from the right side, Vernon Wells, hasn’t homered since – yikes – May 15th.
Their last right-handed hitter to go deep? That would be Jayson Nix, 32 days ago.
All told, the Yankees’ right-handed bats have provided 24 home runs in 1,671 plate appearances. That’s one dinger for every 70 trips. It doesn’t even matter what kind of arm they face: Against lefties, the Yankees’ right-handers hit .214, with a horrid .576 OPS.
Now Soriano comes to town with 17 homers, good enough for eighth in the National League. Under the present circumstances, we are comfortable overlooking his meager .287 on-base percentage. The Yankees need what he brings them, though you wouldn't know it by his 0-for-5 (one RBI) debut.
“We need that thump,” said Mark Teixeira, a thumper with his right hand in a cast. “He’s one of those guys who can beat you with one swing. I think he’s going to be great for this team.”
It was getting to feel as though the Yankees had to throw a shutout to win every night. In fact, the season seemed so off-kilter that the baseball was beginning to feel irrelevant. That Thursday game against the Rangers was the best example: You had no problem finding stories about the annual A-Rod kabuki, the stress-fractured career of a doctor in Hackensack, the obligatory update on Derek Jeter, and, yes, Soriano’s return.
But that 2-0 triumph in Arlington -- where Hiroki Kuroda reconnected the last strands of hope they have left in hanging around in the wild card race – was buried on Page 15.
Now they have another professional hitter they didn’t have Thursday. It’s not one they thought they needed back in March, but it beats the alternative, which was beating nobody.