David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
Rafael Soriano did the impossible this season. He actually made the Yankees forget about Mariano Rivera.
Whoa. Hold up. Don't take that the wrong way. Rivera is a beloved teammate, and we're not saying the Yankees used his locker for a laundry bin or bat rack. He's still got his corner stall, next to Soriano, but Rivera hasn't stopped by that much lately.
It's more like Rivera has stepped aside, and in doing so, allowed Soriano to replace the one closer many believed to be irreplaceable. With 42 saves, and only four blown chances, Soriano was as important to the Yankees as anyone during their exhausting quest for the American League East title.
Now comes the tough part.
The memory of those 42 saves will be flushed faster than "The Marriage Ref" if Soriano can't continue to do a passable impersonation of Rivera from this point on. He doesn't have to be Rivera, who has a 0.70 ERA in 96 postseason appearances, and, oddly enough, 42 saves during that 16-year stretch.
But Soriano must be effective, and as comfortable as the Yankees have been this year with him on the mound, it won't be the same as looking over at Rivera.
Hearing "Enter Sandman" in October stirred feelings of invincibility for anyone in pinstripes. When Soriano's theme music blares over the Stadium speakers -- a personalized homage mixed for him by a friend -- the effect is like your favorite radio station suddenly changed formats overnight.
It's fine, but not the same. And despite listening all season long, the sound takes on a different meaning this time of year.
"Obviously, Soriano's done a great job in his absence," Brian Cashman told Newsday's Erik Boland. "Hopefully he can continue that in October. But Mariano's irreplaceable and you're just hoping to cushion the blow. Soriano cushioned the blow."
When the Yankees signed Soriano to that three-year, $35-million contract in 2011, it was perceived as a vanity purchase, an impulse buy. Soriano had just finished a 45-save season with the Rays, and for a team that already had Rivera, it was so over the top that Cashman publicly admitted he was not in favor of the deal. At the Yankees' own news conference to announce the signing.
If Cashman had a crystal ball back then, that day would have played out a little differently. Without Soriano, these Yankees may not have celebrated the happy ending they enjoyed Wednesday night at the expense of the dysfunctional Red Sox. And it was Soriano who helped nail down Tuesday's critical 12th-inning win, albeit in a fashion that was a bit unsettling.
Soriano was summoned for the ninth with the Yankees trailing 2-1 and immediately teed up a leadoff homer to James Loney. Closers often blame non-save situations when things like that happen, but those excuses don't fly in October, and Soriano redeemed himself by getting the Yankees through the 10th with the scored still tied at 3.
It was the first time Soriano had been used for as many as two innings since 2010, and only twice before in his career had he thrown more than the 43 pitches needed that night. Those were a pair of 44-pitch outings with the Mariners, way back in 2003 and 2005.
Joe Girardi has talked all along about pushing his players harder then he normally would during the final month of this season. The Orioles forced him to. And that desperation could have lasting effects on Soriano.
"The curious thing is how he can bounce back from that as we move forward," Girardi said. "Guys in that room are used to winning, and guys in that room are used to stepping up, and that's what he did."
Soriano wasn't needed in Wednesday's blowout, and after all the champagne spraying had run its course, he was asked about his condition heading into the playoffs.
"I'm ready," Soriano said. "We'll see what happens."
This winter will be just as interesting, as the Yankees will need to come up with a new contract for Rivera, who says he is returning at age 43, and Soriano holding a $1.5-million opt- out that would make him a free agent. An even bigger payday could provide additional motivation for Soriano during this postseason run, but he said Wednesday night that he'd be content again to set up for Rivera, referred to by him as the "greatest closer in the world."
The Yankees don't need greatness from Soriano this month. Spoiled by Rivera, they'll settle for good enough.