By IAN WILSON
The last time we saw Calgarian Mike Soroka take the mound for the Atlanta Braves, he was breaking new ground.
It was Game 3 of the National League Division Series (NLDS) against the St. Louis Cardinals – an exciting 3-1 victory for Atlanta – and Soroka struck out seven batters through seven innings while surrendering no walks, just two hits and one earned run.
That performance alone was a record breaker for the 22-year-old, right-handed pitcher. He was the youngest Canadian to start a postseason game, and the youngest pitcher in playoff history to throw at least seven frames and allow no walks in his debut. When he retired 17 straight batters in his duel against Adam Wainwright, Soroka set a team record for the Braves and a new standard of efficiency for Canadian postseason pitchers.
It’s been a long time since that game at Busch Stadium on Oct. 6, 2019, and it feels even longer with the COVID-19 pandemic that has cancelled and postponed baseball games at all levels this year.
OPENING DAY STARTER
When Soroka toes the rubber on July 24th and stares down the New York Mets – the same team he made his Major League Baseball (MLB) debut against – it will be yet another first for the young man who learned his craft with the Calgary Pro Baseball Force (PBF) Redbirds. He will become the youngest opening-day starting pitcher in Braves history.
Redbird Alumni MIKE SOROKA named opening day starter for the Braves!Couldn’t ask for a better start to the season then watching Mike throw fire in game #1⚾️#Baseball #albertabaseball #baseballalberta #calgary #alberta #baseballcanada #americanlegion #baseballlife #beisbal #mlb pic.twitter.com/GjZkFbEeni
— Calgary Redbirds Baseball (@CalgaryRedbirds) July 14, 2020
“It’s something you dream about as a kid. Opening day to me was always about watching the best pitchers who were available for each team,” Soroka told reporters after manager Brian Snitker informed him he would open up the season for Atlanta.
“It’s one of the only times of the year that you align all the best pitchers at once and you get to pick your matchups … to be considered in that group, I’m blown away and it’s a great honour.”
Snitker was also thrilled for his ace pitcher.
“When I told him, you could tell he was excited,” the skipper told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper.
“He understands what that means and he’s worked really hard. It’s well-deserved.”
Coming off of a dream season that saw him contend for both the National League (NL) Cy Young and Rookie of the Year awards, Soroka is showing no signs of letting his foot off the gas for the 60-game campaign in 2020.
Part of what motivates him is his obvious passion for the game.
“I genuinely have a love for everything within baseball,” Soroka told a group at a Coaching, Teaching, Leadership Conference that was hosted by Little League Alberta on a snowy night in Calgary last November.
“I do think that if I was just as good of a hitter, I might be a hitter, as well. I might be a third or first baseman. Pitching is just kind of what I fell into.”
The one major “pinch me” moment he experienced in his stellar 2019 campaign came at the MLB All-Star Game in Cleveland where he pitched a clean sixth inning. Rubbing shoulders with the greats of the game left a big impression on Soroka.
“At one point, all 30 of us were all in the training room because the media was in our dressing room, but some people were holding court and telling stories in the training room and I didn’t want to be out there talking to all the cameras. Hearing some stories from guys that you don’t get to play with everyday, and some guys that are really revitalizing … Max Scherzer being that guy for me. He really came into his own when I first started paying attention to baseball. He was kind of the guy that when you see him you think, ‘Wow, I tried to pitch like you for so many years and now my locker is across the room from yours.’ That was pretty crazy for me,” said Soroka at the Calgary conference.
“The people in that room definitely set it apart for me.”
As the 2015 first-round pick of the Braves was climbing the minor leagues, the drive to make it to the major leagues provided Soroka with the incentive to be a great pitcher. Having achieved that goal, his inspiration has shifted. He’s now trying to maintain his status as a consistently dependable starter, one who belongs in the All-Star Game locker rooms and Cy Young conversations on annual basis.
Through two seasons with Atlanta, the 6-foot-5 hurler has pitched just over 200 innings, posting a 15-5 record with a 2.79 earned run average in his 34 starts for the Braves. He’s also struck out 163 batters and walked only 48 opponents.
Yet, if the preseason predictions are any indication, there are still some people out there who doubt what Soroka can do. That’s further motivation for the Bishop Carroll High School graduate.
And, of course, there is the opportunity for even more firsts.
Soroka reflected on his favourite Little League memory when he was in Calgary. A home run that he hit in Medicine Hat came to mind.
“I haven’t hit too many since,” said the former Calgary West Little League star.
“The best feeling in baseball is hitting home runs. I hope I get to do it at the major league level.”
He may have to wait a bit longer to achieve that goal. MLB adopted a new universal designated hitter rule for the shortened season that will allow NL teams to use a batter in place of the pitcher each game.