Joakim Soria, newcomers adjust to life in dominant Royals bullpen

While the Royals’ World Series-clinching Game 5 victory took 12 innings to reach its conclusion, plenty of Kansas City baseball games felt shorter than nine innings thanks to the dominant trio of relief pitchers at the back end of the team’s bullpen.

The group of Greg Holland, Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera were as dominant as any relief pitchers in baseball last season, but an expiring contract and a torn ligament in Holland’s arm left the Royals with an opening in late-inning situations.

Enter, or re-enter, the familiar face of Joakim Soria.

“I think that’s the purpose they brought me back for,” said Soria, a former All-Star closer who will pitch in a setup role this year. “I know what to do during the season, obviously. I have a track record.”

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While Soria pitched in Texas, Detroit and Pittsburgh during the Royals’ two World Series trips, he said he feels right back at home within the Kansas City bullpen.

“It feels good to be back. It feels like I never left,” Soria said. “A lot of these guys, they were young when I left and now they’re mature. They know what they’re doing. They just play hard and it’s nice to see that.”

One of those now-mature players is Herrera. Now an All-Star, Herrera had just two big-league appearances under his belt the last time Soria wore Royals blue in 2011. Now, Herrera’s spring training locker is set up right next to Soria’s.

“It’s pretty good (to have Soria back),” Herrera said. “He’s got experience, he’s been here before and he’s a pretty good guy, too.”

For the other newcomers to the Royals’ relievers this spring — even the veteran ones — it’s a bit more imposing to be among the standout unit on a championship team.

“It is a little bit (intimidating),” non-roster invitee Brian Duensing said. “A lot of the guys here throw the ball extremely well, obviously, as well as extremely hard. That’s something I don’t do — I’m not a guy that’s going to blow it past somebody — but you still learn a lot from these guys.”

Duensing, Ross Ohlendorf and David Huff are among a group of several players with major-league experience in camp as non-roster invitees competing for the last few spots on the opening day roster. Versatility could be the key to filling out the Royals bullpen.

“I just come in everyday and get the most out of it that I can,” Ohlendorf said. “If I have an opportunity to help the team in any way, then I’ll do my best to do it.”

Ohlendorf has started and pitched long and short relief out of the bullpen over the last five years. Soria, on the other hand, plans to do what he’s always done: throw strikes and get outs. He’s got the full support of his new bullpen partner — while Davis wasn’t with the Royals until after Soria left, he can already understand his fellow reliever’s impact on the team.

“He’s a huge force,” Davis said. “That’s a guy who throws a ton of strikes, has great command, gets guys out and doesn’t give up runs. It’s going to be a big get.”

Davis and Soria talked throughout morning pitching drills at a recent workout, but Davis said the two dominant closers weren’t talking too much about the game itself.

“I’ve seen him pitch a lot, so I don’t think there’s anything to talk about pitching-wise besides me just picking his brain a little bit,” Davis said. “We’re just getting to know each other. We’re going to spend a lot of time together this year, so it’ll be good.”

While Soria finds himself getting back into a comfortable place, Duensing is somewhere he hasn’t been in a number of years: battling to make a major-league roster out of spring training. Duensing spent seven years with the Twins before entering free agency after last season.

“The last four or five years I really haven’t had to pitch for a spot, so this is kind of new to me,” Duensing said. “Hopefully everything goes well and I pitch the way I know I can.”

Duensing’s goals this spring differ from Soria’s as well. While Soria is looking to prove to manager Ned Yost that he should get the ball towards the end of games, non-roster invitee Duensing knows he has a clear but challenging task at-hand.

“I just want to have a good spring and make the squad, really,” he said. “Or at least make it difficult on the front office.”

Jayson Chesler is a senior at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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