The baseball disappeared into Alfonso Soriano's glove, and for a brief moment, there were only a few people in Camden Yards who were in on the gag. Soriano hung his head, savored the catch, then nonchalantly flipped the ball in the air and whipped it to the infield.
"I took two or three seconds, just for me," Soriano said, with a huge grin.
For Soriano, who has made an incredible impact for the Yankees by clubbing rockets out of the ballpark, it was a rare treat to keep one from leaving. The Yanks applauded Soriano's grab of Manny Machado's deep drive last Thursday, but it was just one more installment of what has been a remarkable second half for the 37-year-old veteran.
Since being refitted for pinstripes by a July 26 trade with the Cubs, Soriano has helped to change the landscape of the lineup in a major way. His 15 home runs and 47 RBIs since joining the team lead the Major Leagues over that span; after navigating the first few months of the season as a club that relied on strong pitching and hoping for a few timely hits, Soriano helped make the Yankees feel like the Bronx Bombers of old.
"It's a big difference now, because you've got three guys who weren't there in the beginning: Soriano, Alex [Rodriguez], and [Curtis] Granderson," second baseman Robinson Cano said. "Now you have to face those guys."
Even before Brett Gardner suffered what may have been a season-ending left oblique injury late last week, manager Joe Girardi was allowing Soriano to patrol left field on a regular basis. Girardi explained that Soriano feels playing defense keeps him in the game offensively, and though Granderson is generally regarded as a better defensive player, Girardi had no intention of disrupting Soriano's hot streak.
"If you put his numbers out there [over a full season], he's going to drive in 160 runs and hit 60 home runs," Girardi said. "Those are pretty incredible numbers if you put him at that pace."
The Yanks desperately needed help with run production, which is what drew them to a reunion with Soriano in the first place. He has certainly lived up to his billing, hitting 11 home runs in August alone, the only Yankee in history to do so at age 37 or older.
But they had little reason to expect the other areas of Soriano's game to be so helpful; with the Cubs, Soriano was hitting .254 with a .287 on-base percentage, and scouts whispered about how he seemed to be a non-factor in the outfield and on the basepaths.
"It just hasn't been his offense; it's been his defense, it's been him running the bases," Girardi said. "There's been so many things that he's done for us. I don't think any of us imagined it would probably be this much."
In fact, general manager Brian Cashman has acknowledged that while he believed Soriano would help the lineup's production, he was balking at surrendering Minor Leaguer right-hander Corey Black, who was 3-8 with a 4.25 ERA in 19 starts at Class A Advanced Tampa and has not appeared on any of the club's top prospect lists.
Owner Hal Steinbrenner ultimately pushed the deal through. The Cubs are footing the bill for approximately $18 million of the $25 million that remains on Soriano's contract through 2014, making the trade already look like a steal regardless of Black's future development.
"There were a couple more teams [interested], but when they said the Yankees, I just forgot all the teams," said Soriano, who had to waive a no-trade clause to complete the deal. "I focused on the Yankees."
Soriano said that he was re-energized by the idea of participating in meaningful September baseball. He enjoyed playing at Wrigley Field, but realized that the Cubs were in need of more help than he alone could offer.
"Chicago is a great city, a great team and a great organization, but I think they're in a tough division," Soriano said. "Thank God that I came back to the team that I used to play before. The Yankees, they love to win."
Regardless of what happens the rest of the way with the Yankees, who were parked three games out of the second Wild Card spot after being swept by the Red Sox in Boston, Soriano has made some history during these few weeks back in New York. He has become the sixth player to hit 15 or more homers for two teams in one season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, and one of those players should be fondly recalled by Yanks fans.
In 2000, David Justice arrived as a July acquisition from the Indians and proceeded to hit 20 home runs in just 78 games, helping Joe Torre's Yankees as they chased down their fourth World Series championship in five seasons.
That is the type of outcome that Soriano would love to be able to toast at the end of this campaign. For now, as he did that night in Baltimore, he just wants to steal a few seconds here and there to enjoy this.
"I just try to do my job, not try to put extra pressure on me," Soriano said. "I just try to go out and have fun every inning, every pitch and every game. That's what I like to do, and that's what I'm trying to do; just help the team to win."