"Tell Soriano it's the same game as San Antonio," former Seattle manager Lou Piniella said at the time, talking to former bullpen coach Matt Sinatro. "Nothing has changed."
It was May 10, 2002, a home game against Boston, and Seattle's top pitching prospect Rafael Soriano was just minutes away from making his big-league debut.
Taking his manager's advice, the 6-foot-1 Dominican trotted out to the mound from the Mariners bullpen in left-center field, threw a couple warm-up tosses, and calmly shut down the Red Sox for the first save of his big-league career. In three innings of relief, the right-hander didn't allow a run and gave up only one hit, a double to Manny Ramirez.
Looking back, Soriano says nervousness played no factor in his first major league appearance.
"Nothing changed," he said, recalling the memorable day after a recent Tacoma Rainiers home game, where he has spent all but two weeks of the 2003 season. "There were more people in the stands. That's it."
That appearance was the first of 10 for Soriano in his rookie season, and undoubtedly the first of many to come. He completed 2003 with a record of 0-3 and a 4.56 ERA.
Since the completion of last season, much has changed. Not just the obvious differences like the departure of Lou Piniella and much of his coaching staff, but with Soriano himself. Simply put, he isn't the same pitcher he was a year ago.
He's smarter, happier, and, though hard to believe, more talented.
It's easy to view the big leagues as a utopia of sorts, a perfect place that every minor leaguer strives for. While it's undeniably where Soriano wants to be again, the 23-year-old admits times weren't always as rosy as it would seem when he was with Seattle last year. He says the communication wasn't always there with the coaches and teammates. And on a personal level, he didn't feel that he was improving to the degree that he had hoped for.
This year, he says that's all changed. Despite not making the Mariners' club out of spring training, he got the call up to the bigs early in the season. An injury that forced Kazuhiro Sasaki to the disabled list opened up a spot, and Soriano got the call in mid-April.
"This year everything is different," said the flame-throwing pitcher. "I talk to everybody and we have good communication."
On the mound, with the help of pitching coaches Bryan Price of the Mariners and Jim Slaton of the Rainiers, Soriano has improved the effectiveness of his pitches and altered his pitcher-to-batter strategy.
"Last year with Seattle I didn't change my pitching," Soriano said. "I threw the same. I went inside with all of my pitches.
"That's what Bryan Price told me. He said, ‘You don't have to throw the same to every batter. You have to change. That's what I'm working on. Now I go inside and then I go outside and the batters don't know where the pitch is going to be."
Speaking of changes, another improvement for Soriano over last season is just that – his changeup. In 2002, Soriano relied almost exclusively on a mid-to-high 90s fastball and a hard-slider. By season's end, however, that wasn't the case. Through hard work, he developed a workable changeup. While at Double-A San Antonio near season's end, the new-found pitch worked well enough to stifle Tulsa in the Texas League Championship game. Soriano struck out 14 to earn the biggest win of his career.
"I don't know how many changeups I threw that day," said Soriano, unable to hide a smile. "I threw a lot of them."
The pitch worked well enough that Soriano wanted to utilize it more, so that's been a main point of his focus this season.
"I feel more comfortable with my changeup and my slider too," he said.
Already, the reviews are coming in and so far they've all been positive.
"When I was with the Mariners in Detroit this year and I threw my changeup, the guys on the team were like, ‘Wow, I never saw that pitch before. You didn't have the same changeup in spring training as you do now.'"
Soriano is making the best of his time in Triple-A. He knows his time with the Mariners with come again. Until then, he's working hard and hoping for the best.
Where the Mariners use him once he gets recalled isn't of concern to the man Baseball America rates as the No. 1 prospect in the Seattle organization.
"To me I don't care," he said. "Whatever they think is better for me to help my team – to be a starter, to be a reliever, to be a closer - I'll do it."
It's hard to ask for anything more.