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Mario Soto stakes claim to stardom with fastball, concentration

The intense concentration he brings to his profession shows first in his eyes; then in the fire and ice in his throwing arm; finally in his stamina. Put them all together and you've got Mario Soto of the Cincinnati Reds, a 20-game winner waiting to happen.

Even pitching for last-place Cincinnati in the National League West hasn't put much of a damper on Soto's formula for success. Last year the 27-year-old right-hander won 14 games and was voted by writers covering the Reds as both the Outstanding Pitcher and Most Valuable Player on the team. This year he's been even better, ranking high among the league leaders in wins, earned run average, strikeouts, innings pitched, and complete games, and earning the honor of starting in the All-Star Game.

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''Soto is a strikeout pitcher who throws fastballs about 60 percent of the time,'' explained Cincinnati pitching coach Bill Fischer. ''Generally, opposing teams have to get to him early or they don't get to him at all. Give him a lead and he'll invariably make it stand up.

''There are a couple of things about Soto that are unusual,'' Fischer continued. ''He doesn't have a curveball, but the way he has learned to throw his changeup so that he can make it run inside whether the hitter is left-handed or right-handed makes him tough for the hitter to read. Nobody talks about it much, but he also throws a great slider.''

Questioned about reports that he grips the ball differently than most pitchers when he throws his fastball and changeup (something to do with the way his fingers work against the seams), Soto replied:

''The only way I could answer that would be to go around and ask every other pitcher how he holds the ball. But I doubt if my grip makes that much difference , because pitching is more than just throwing the ball. Mentally you have to expect to win. I try not to have any negative thoughts. If I'm in a situation where I need a strikeout to get through an inning with men on base, I always figure I'm going to get it.

''I challenge hitters because that is the strength of a strikeout pitcher,'' he continued. ''You have to make sure that you are in charge, not the batter, even if it means throwing 140 pitches a game. If you think you are going to be tired, then you probably are going to be tired. But if you are a strikeout pitcher, you cannot afford to think that way and expect to win.''

The fact that Soto is pleasantly wild probably contributes to his effectiveness, since hitters are naturally reluctant to dig in too solidly against fastballers who have such problems. And although Mario is not considered to have quite as much ''heat'' as rival National League fireballers Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton, he has been caught by the Reds' radar gun on numerous occasions at 94 m.p.h. - which is plenty fast enough to overpower most hitters.

''I put Soto's speed right there with Ryan and Carlton, not because of what it says on any radar machine, but because of the way I see hitters react to him at the plate,'' said Cincinnati Manager Russ Nixon. ''You can see the respect hitters have for all of these guys by the way they try to protect the strike zone against them. They might be looking fastball, but in the back of their mind they are thinking changeup and what it can do to their timing.''

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Until last year, Soto always pitched winter ball in the Dominican Republic, where he lives and where political leaders encourage native athletes who make it big in the States to share some of that talent on the home front. But before 1982, Mario made only one pitching appearance in his country before reporting to the Reds' training camp in Florida.

If you ask Soto why, you don't really get an answer. However, Mario pitched more than 257 innings for Cincinnati last year, and chances are the Reds persuaded him that big league arms, if they are to remain big league arms, aren't built for year-round work.

Watching Soto in action is like watching one of the faces from Mt. Rushmore come down off its peak and attach itself to a major league pitcher. His expression is the same whether the Reds are five runs behind or five runs ahead, although teammates say his frustration after a defeat is easy to spot in the clubhouse.

Nevertheless, one of the equipment men who travels regularly with the Reds told me that Soto is always the same - great - with the people he has to deal with on a regular basis.

''A lot of players invent injuries so they can hide in the trainer's room or get out of pre-game practice, but Mario isn't like that,'' he said. ''He works hard at what he does.''

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