You can see the ease and relief on Mike Soroka’s face.
Fielding questions in the new studio of Calgary’s Barn Burner: Boomer & Pinder with Rhett Warrener, the Calgary product and Atlanta Braves ace has faced a lot of adversity over the last couple of years.
He hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2020 after tearing his Achilles tendon twice, and his rehabilitation hasn’t been normal thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Soroka managed to pitch in a few minor league games this summer before the Braves shut him down for the season with elbow inflammation.
He attributed the soreness to a change in his delivery and said there was no need to push his return, as he wanted to get back to his old routines.
“This is finally a normal off-season,” Soroka told Barn Burner host Ryan Pinder. “The last two years have been long – they haven’t really been off-seasons.”
Instead of spending the winter months rehabbing, he looks forward to “training like an athlete again” and getting his arm in shape for when pitchers and catchers report in February.
A TRIP TO THE MECHANICS
There was an audible gasp from Canadian baseball fans and Braves faithful as they watched Soroka tear his Achilles trying to cover first base in his third start of the 2020 season.
Just a few months into his recovery from the subsequent surgery, he felt a pop as he walked into the Atlanta clubhouse, and tests would show he suffered the same injury and would once again require surgery.
It was disappointing for the 25-year-old, who was coming off a 2019 season where he was a National League All-Star and Rookie of the Year nominee.
“I think that’s what is different than a lot of regular rehab is you have to do it and be the best in the world at something,” Soroka said.
“That’s the difficult part is there’s constant doubt about whether you’re going to be there (back to his 2019 form).”
One of the biggest challenges around a long rehabilitation like the one he endured were the long days of monotony.
He was doing the same calf raises and foot mobility drills multiple times a day for the better part of two years, and it started weighing on him.
Soroka says, neurologically, his right leg was battered, having gone through two tears and three major surgeries.
He started to notice that about six months into his rehab work, he was hitting plateaus where he stopped getting stronger.
That’s when the right-hander decided to change things up, and enlisted the help of Bio-Kinetics 3D Research & Development, a state-of-the-art training facility in Utah.
The hope was to fix his pitching mechanics so that he didn’t reinjure the limb.
“I noticed my calf started tightening up again after I’d pitch,” he said in an interview with the 755 Is Real podcast.
“It was just going down the road that I’ve been down and I said, ’No, we’re not doing this.’ Initially, I said we’ll wait for the offseason, but everybody agreed, once we got on a call, this was what we needed to do.”
He says it was the best decision he could have made, adding it’s not a one-time project, but something that will be done on a continual basis as there are always little things to work on.
There is also a lot of hope from those who worked with him in Utah.
“He had some good velocity throws here,” Bio-Kinetics owner Bob Keyes told The Athletic.
“He had to re-invent himself a little bit, but I think the future looks really good for him.”
JUST A BIT OUTSIDE
The mental game has always been a strength for Soroka.
Lauded for his cool-under-pressure approach, the 6-foot-5, 225-pound starter admits it was a struggle in 2021 as he watched his Braves pursue a World Series championship.
Not only were his competitive juices wanting to be out on the field, but Soroka came up through the Braves’ system with players like Ronald Acuna, Austin Riley and Max Fried.
The team had a few tough years, but the young stars were told they would be World Series champions one day.
Unfortunately, both Soroka and Acuna were watching from the dugout as their team claimed the championship.
READ MORE: Soaking It All In
Even as the team celebrated in the clubhouse, Alberta’s young star had to watch from the outside.
“I couldn’t even go inside and pop bottles early on because of the slip risk,” he said.
“I was still only four months out of my second surgery, maybe even less, so I had to literally watch from the outside in.”
He uses those memories as motivation to make sure he is part of something similar in 2023 and beyond.
“I still got to watch them do something pretty special,” Soroka said.
“I get to store the part of it that was difficult, keep it in the bank for those days in August and September when it’s getting tough to push through and remember what it felt like to watch from the outside and want to be a part of.”
“It will let me dig deep and go get it.”
PUTTING IT IN PERSPECTIVE
Soroka has also had the benefit of a strong support system back home in Calgary. Whether it’s with his girlfriend, his father, or with his long-time coach and mentor Chris Reitsma, he has had someone to lean on.
“I just try to keep him positive at this point,” Reitsma told Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast in February.
“It’s more of a friendship at this point. We talk mechanics and setting hitters up, but at the same time, he’s been at the highest level for a while and we kind of see the game the same way, so it’s more just the mental part of the game and life stuff now.”
Soroka adds perspective was important as he went through the processes, as many baseball players face major injuries in college or the minor leagues.
While he is concerned about how the last three years have set him back, the 25-year-old believes there is a lot of time left on the clock.
“I watch guys like Charlie Morton go out there at 39 years old and throwing 98 miles an hour, or (Max) Scherzer – same boat,” Soroka said.
“Watching guys like that, I know that if I keep going, keep putting one foot in front of the other, I might have a chance to do something similar.”
Not only does he lean on baseball experiences to guide him, but he’s also able to look outside the realm of sports to get a real feeling of gratitude for playing the game he loves.
“You go read a book about a World War II prisoner of war in Singapore and, literally, actually lost six years of his life as a prisoner in camp,” Soroka told Barn Burner.
“It’s as far as seeing stuff like that where you realize, you’re like, ‘OK, I’m doing alright, let’s recover here, let’s not panic.’ Those are the big ones for me – it’s just perspective.”
It’s that mindset that has the young ace excited to get back to his old routines again.
While he recently signed a one-year, $2.8 million deal to return to the Braves, he believes he needs to earn his spot back in the club’s big-league rotation.
The Bishop Carroll High School and Calgary Redbirds alum plans on enjoying his time at home this winter with family, watching his Calgary Flames a few times, and working out.
“Already, I’m enjoying training again,” he said. “I’m getting back out there, lifting and moving around, and I can’t wait to start throwing and having fun with it again.”