Though the score didn’t reflect it, Game 1 of the South Atlantic League Championship Series was an amazingly pitched baseball game. Despite the BlueClaws walking away victorious 5-0 over the Rome Braves, the line score doesn’t tell the whole story, as Mike Soroka and Franklyn Kilome squared off in a Sally version of a fall classic that was a pitching duel for the ages.
Mike Soroka of the Rome Braves is part of this young pitching staff that has showed experience and moxie beyond their years this postseason. In four games, Soroka, Max Fried and Kolby Allard have combined to throw 28.1 innings, striking out 22 (highlighted by a Fried series-clinching 11-strikeout performance against Charleston) and walking a mere four batters while allowing just two earned runs. You would never think that these playoff starters had an average age of 20, the youngest starting rotation in the Sally playoffs.
"It’s been terrific," Rome manager Randy Ingle said of his rotation. "[Soroka] was again tonight. He threw the ball really good tonight and got the ground balls when he needed to. Yet again, it was another plus, positive performance."
For Soroka it was business as usual. The 6-foot-4 righty was around the strike zone all night, commanding batters and dictating the tempo. Right off the bat Soroka was on, throwing 13 pitches in both the first and second innings, landing 20 of the 26 pitches for strikes. His fastball was landing in the zone, consistently pounding the glove at 94 and his 85 mile per hour change was keeping hitters at bay.
He has become a strikeout and ground ball pitcher, and that was the case Monday night. Six times he sat down a Lakewood BlueClaw via strikeout, including an impressive "backwards K" with runners on second and third in the second. 16 times he induced a ground ball out, compared to one fly out on the night. Three of those ground balls, however, all of which didn’t even leave the infield, were misplayed leading to four unearned runs. Just two balls were hit hard all evening (two doubles to the gaps) and he issued no walks.
"Soroka threw the ball very well," Ingle said. "It was one of those nights. It wasn’t a Rome Braves team out there playing tonight. Usually we don't make errors, and it’s tough when you only get one hit. You got to take your hat off to their guys. I’ll tell you their starter -- he had it going. He had a really good breaking ball and he used it a lot, and he put it in some really good spots. There was not a whole lot we could do."
The Blue Claws Franklyn Kilome stole the show. The 21 year old righty was in the zone for much of the night aside from a few bad pitches. The Game 1 starter has improved each month of the season, and threw arguably the best start of his career when it mattered most.
Kilome’s season didn’t start that way. He had a horrific April, in which he made three starts that saw him allow 17 earned runs on 20 hits over just 9.2 innings. A 15.83 ERA, a 3.10 WHIP, a .435 batting average against and a seven-to-ten strikeout-to-walk ratio made some wonder if the inconsistencies he showed in the NYPL the year prior would haunt him at the next level.
It turned around. His last 20 starts of the season would see him be stingy in the run department, pitching to a 2.74 ERA, striking out 123 and walking 37 over that span. He allowed one run or fewer in eight of his last nine starts and his arsenal — one that features a 70-grade fastball, a sick curve that he can throw two different ways and an improving change — got stronger as the year progressed.
"More his curveball than anything," Williams told me in a pregame interview on what improved most. "His fastball command has gotten a lot better, but his curveball and his command with it to throw called strikes has been his biggest improvement. It’s the big reason why he’s turned it around. It compliments his fastball, and he mixes in the changeup as well."
It was all his breaking ball Monday night in Rome. Excited to see some of the heat this tall and lanky righty (he stands at 6-foot-6 and 175 pounds) has become known for, he blew everyone away with his curve. Time and time again, he would get the Rome Braves chasing pitches, many of which would hit the dirt as they passed home plate due to the nasty sink and spin he was able to master on the pitch all throughout the evening.
He threw a mere 39 pitches through the first four innings, four innings that saw him go through the Braves lineup perfectly. He landed 28 of those pitches for strikes, flashing some of that heat, hitting as high as 96 on the radar gun, but constantly throwing the breaking ball, confusing the young Braves lineup throughout the night.
A second inning leadoff at bat to Justin Ellison exemplifies how much trust he had in his breaking ball throughout the night. A four pitch at bat, all of the pitches were strikes, three of them were breaking balls. 80, 82, 96, and 82 miles per hour and Ellison was down on strikes, only to see Jonathan Morales get fooled on strike three right after him.
The Braves broke through in the fifth, as Ellison hit a lead off double. Morales was then robbed by centerfielder Carlos Duran on a fully-extended diving catch. After a walk to Jared James, Kilome refocused, found the bite of his breaking ball and proceeded never to be in trouble again.
His final line was seven innings pitched, one hit, nine strikeouts and two walks, ending his evening with yet another "backwards K" on yet another nasty breaking ball.
Kilome's two playoff starts have been fantastic. He hasn't allowed a run while striking out 19 and walking just two over 13 innings. He is learning to use his whole body, and fully extends as he comes at the plate, which I think has helped improved his command and, more importantly, consistency. A few times early on, you could see that he erred in his release point, and pushing the ball outside the zone (possibly overthrowing a bit as well), which account for two of his whopping three balls issued in the first inning, but those were minor blips on the radar of an otherwise spectacular night.
The series continues Tuesday night, when two more young pitchers who have been on fire toe the rubber. The Blue Claws send 21 year old righty Seranthony Dominguez to the mound, who hasn’t allowed an earned run in his last four outings. Trying to even it up for Rome will be 20 year old Touki Toussaint, who’s breaking ball is so nasty it has been called the best in the low minors. It should play out for yet another fantastic pitching duel.