Gregory Soto trotted up the clubhouse stairs and into the dugout at Camden Yards in Baltimore.
He wasn’t going to pitch because he closed the previous two games, putting the Detroit Tigers in a position to sweep the Orioles. Regardless, Soto was preparing for three consecutive days of work, something manager AJ Hinch tries to avoid at all costs. But Soto always tells his skipper he will be ready.
“It would be the first day ever if either one of those guys says they can’t pitch,” Hinch said last week about Soto and fellow reliever Jose Cisnero.
Before the game, standing in the dugout with Tigers bilingual media coordinator Carlos Guillen translating, the Tigers’ unofficial closer let his confidence shine.
Soto used to care about the job title, but not anymore.
“I don’t see any difference if they call me (the closer) officially or not,” the left-hander told the Free Press. “Because I’m doing it.”
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The Tigers recognized Soto’s rare talent early on. He throws a blazing 100 mph fastball combined with a wicked slider. He always had the raw skills to be the closer of the future. For the longest time, as recently as spring training, he was obsessed with the job title. It was a status symbol.
Since then, a lot has changed.
He became an All-Star for the first time in 2021. Returning July 17 from the break, he has exclusively pitched the ninth inning (and once in the seventh to complete a seven-inning doubleheader). During this stretch, Soto is a perfect 8-for-8 in save opportunities across 12 outings.
He has a 2.79 ERA, 28 walks, 62 strikeouts and 15 saves (16 chances) in 48⅓ innings over 50 games this season. The biggest internal change is Soto doesn’t care about the closer role. It’s a sign of maturity, which displays his poise, team-centered mindset and dose of swag.
“I think his confidence has grown,” Hinch said. “The All-Star nod had to give him a boost. The fact that he’s pitching in all leverage situations, predominately at the end of the game, I think that’s given him a ton of confidence. The more success you have, especially for a reliever, the more you feel like the guy.”
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There’s also an external change: his slider.
When Hinch was hired in October, he evaluated footage of Soto’s two seasons with the Tigers and noticed Soto didn’t possess a “correction pitch” for when his fastball command wasn’t at its best. In previous years, if Soto couldn’t throw strikes with his fastball, he was going to walk the house — simply because he didn’t trust his slider enough to throw it for strikes.
Pitching coach Chris Fetter and assistant pitching coach Juan Nieves forced Soto to improve his slider, a pitch to get back on track when he falls behind in counts and to put opponents away with two strikes. With this revelation, Soto’s fastball and overall command is better than it has ever been in his three-year MLB career.
“I think that’s made him a legit major league back-end reliever,” Hinch said, “as opposed to someone you dream on.”
“This year, after getting it all together using both the fastball and the slider, what I’m just trying to do now is throw it in the strike zone consistently,” Soto said.
Last year, he posted a 4.30 ERA with two saves, 13 walks and 29 strikeouts over 23 innings. He appeared in 27 games, finishing six of them. Then-manager Ron Gardenhire used Joe Jimenez and Bryan Garcia for most save situations.
Gardenhire, though, often commented on what Soto could become, as did Hinch at the beginning of his tenure. These comments frustrated Soto, so he focused on reaching his potential. Elevating his preparation (a healthier diet) and performance (more strikes) established himself as a ninth-inning reliever in 2021.
“It was about time to get myself more consistent with my pitches and more consistent physically, especially on my weight,” Soto said. “It was about time for that to happen. I had a lot of people saying that I had the skills, that I had the abilities to do what I was capable of doing. In my mind, I was thinking, ‘Well, it’s about time to do the little things.’ ”
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Soto took the mound Aug. 3 and clocked 100 mph or faster with 10 of his 19 pitches to the four batters he faced against the Boston Red Sox at Comerica Park. He recorded two strikeouts, freezing Rafael Devers with a 101 mph fastball to complete the 4-2 win.
“It was a sight to see,” Hinch said, “and certainly why we’ve tried to nurture him into that ninth-inning role. Dare I call it a closer?”
Hinch continued: “I didn’t intentionally walk a guy for a full season. I can definitely not call a guy a closer.”
Soto doesn’t need the title. He already knows he is the closer.
“It’s very special,” Soto said. “I have opportunities to close games, and I’ve been performing very well. This is something that pushes me. It’s a positive point for me, so everybody can see that I can do my job and that I have the talent to do it but also the mindset for performing in late-game situations.”
Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.