KANSAS CITY, MO - JUNE 9: Joakim Soria #48 of the Kansas City Royals appeals to first base for a call in the ninth inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at Kauffman Stadium on June 9, 2011 in Kansas City, Missouri. The Royals defeated the Blue Jays 3-2. (Photo by G. Newman Lowrance/Getty Images)
As mysteriously as Joakim Soria's struggles arrived and lingered, they seem to have disappeared.
Arguably one of the two or three best relief pitchers in the majors entering this season, Soria lost his job as Kansas City's closer after giving up three runs on May 30, earning his third loss and fifth blown save. At that point, Soria's ERA was 6.55; he'd entered the campaign with a 2.01 career mark.
He wasn't throwing quite as hard as usual, but more than anything he seemed to have lost the pinpoint control that had always made his low-90s fastball so much more effective than most. There were suggestions that maybe the hitters had finally figured him out ... But why would that happen in May 2011, rather than (say) June 2009 or August 2010?
Was Soria hurt? He said he wasn't. But when a pitcher with Soria's talents pitches as poorly as he pitched in April and May, you can't help wondering. Something certainly didn't seem right, and from the outside it looked like he'd lost his confidence, at least.
So the Royals demoted him. Rookie Aaron Crow took over as closer, or at least that was the plan; Crow hasn't actually gotten any save opportunities. Meanwhile, Soria seems to have found himself. In his first three outings after the demotion, Soria pitched five scoreless innings. Five scoreless hitless innings. Five scoreless hitless walkless innings.
If one wants to pick nits, one might point to Soria's single strikeout in those five innings. But given what came before, it's hard to complain about Soria's non-closer outings, and his track record certainly suggests that he deserves at least one more shot before handing the job to Crow for good.
Thursday afternoon against the Blue Jays, Crow pitched a scoreless eighth -- though not without some troubles -- and Soria once again took the mound in the ninth. And while he ultimately earned his eighth save and preserved Luke Hochevar's first victory since the 1st of May, Soria once again struggled with his location, his fastball usually around the zone but his off-speed pitches just occasionally effective.
He might have pitched well enough to keep his job. But until further notice, it's best to assume he's week-to-week in his accustomed role. And with one more outing like this -- Soria gave up two singles and a walk -- it's going to become a psychological thing, for Soria's manager as much as for him.