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With pressure relieved, Sori soars

NEW YORK -- In the annals of Yankees history, the two home runs Alfonso Soriano hit Tuesday against the hopeless Los Angeles Angels will never be remembered like the two he hit in the 2001 postseason in his first go-round as a Yankee.

After all, the first of those snatched away the ALCS from the Seattle Mariners, and the second blast would have won the World Series had the Arizona Diamondbacks not rallied.

These two merely helped keep alive a dream that admittedly is still remote -- the chance that the Yankees could go on a winning streak over the last six weeks of the season and squeeze into a playoff spot.

"It's another big bat that can change the complexion of the game in a hurry and it can mean a lot," Joe Girardi said after Soriano had driven in a career-high six runs in the Yankees' 14-7 victory.

Since becoming a Yankee in a trade with the Chicago Cubs on July 26, Soriano hadn't been much of a difference-maker, and recently, had hit rock bottom, with just one hit -- a home run -- 16 at-bats before Tuesday's explosion. Even worse, he was striking out at an alarming rate -- 21 times in 59 at-bats as a Yankee -- and the word he used to describe himself at the plate was an apt one: "Lost."

But on this night, he found himself homering to left off starter Jason Vargas in the fifth; homering to right-center, a three-run shot, off Joe Blanton in the seventh; and driving in a run with a single off Michael Kohn. And the reason, Girardi thinks, is simple: Soriano was putting too much pressure on himself in the pursuit of his 2,000th hit, a milestone he reached with a solo home run off the Tigers on Sunday.

Although Soriano went 0-for-3 on Monday, Girardi thought his swing looked better, and Tuesday, after striking out in his first two at-bats, Sori's bat came alive. "I just tried to do too much to get my 2,000," he said. "Thank God it happened two days ago and now I’m more relaxed."

Along with his history of big home runs, Soriano also has a history of putting too much pressure on himself when nearing a milestone. It will be recalled that in 2002, while trying to become a member of the 40-40 club, Soriano hit his 39th home run on Sept. 17, and couldn't manage to hit another one over the final 12 games despite -- or maybe because of -- coming out of his shoes on every swing the rest of the season. He finally joined the club in 2006 as a member of the Washington Nationals.

"I think it got to him a little," Girardi said. "Once he got by it, I thought his at-bats have been much better."

But there has been more to Soriano's resurgence than merely an easing of pressure; there have also been plenty of early cage sessions with Kevin Long and a lot of time spent in front of the video screen, trying not only to correct his swing, but also to familiarize himself with American League pitching, something he hasn't seen on a regular basis in nearly a decade.

"It’s been a little difficult, so I just tried to get comfortable, especially with the guys I’ve never seen before," he said. "I saw a lot of video and got something in my mind to make me feel comfortable at the plate.”

What really made Soriano feel comfortable on Tuesday, however, was being part of a lineup that could put some runs on the board, something he vaguely remembers from 10 years ago but had rarely seen over the past two weeks.

“It felt more like the old days tonight," he said. “That’s why I always loved the Yankees. The clubhouse and the dugout are always relaxed because everybody has confidence. Sometimes we may not play good, but we haven’t lost the confidence. That’s the most important thing with this team."

That, and finally having a right-handed bat in the lineup that the opposing manager might actually fear.