Earlier this season, I was out in Rome to take in what was expected to be a pitcher’s duel between Mitch Keller and the Rome Braves own Mike Soroka. Instead, I saw arguably both of their worst starts of the season. It wasn’t that they pitched terribly (which speaks volumes to what defines their "worst" start of the year), but they didn’t show the stuff that made them so highly touted.
Last night, I was in Rome for the first game of the South Atlantic League Southern Division Championships. Mike Soroka once again took the mound, toeing the rubber against the Charleston RiverDogs Nick Green. Green — who has been on fire for the Yankees Low-A affiliate since coming over in the Carlos Beltran deal — was part of a Charleston pitching staff that led the Sally in ERA at 3.03, so another pitcher’s duel was expected.
Soroka came out and had a rocky first inning. A leadoff off single by Kyle Holder that somehow found its way between first baseman Carlos Castro and second baseman Kevin Josephina, followed by another lightly hit single by Vicente Conde had Soroka in early trouble. After loading the bases by hitting Jhalan Jackson, it looked like Soroka may have been on the ropes, but he was able to induce a nice inning-ending, bases loaded double play to Luis Torrens to get out of the jam.
"It’s nice to get that first inning out of the way," Soroka said of escaping his troublesome first. "I got my feet underneath me. I got some huge plays from fielders and I can’t thank them enough for that. Once we got that out of the way, I was able to just do my game."
After laboring through a first inning that saw him throw 23 pitches — 14 of which were strikes — Soroka came out in the second inning and was able to put it quickly behind him. He threw seven pitches, all strikes, for a 1-2-3 second inning.
"Sometimes I think I get myself a little too psyched up," Soroka said of how he was able to settle down in the second." I get a little too excited when I get out there. Being able to slow it down, that's how I managed to do it. I got to 3-0 a few times, I managed to slow it down and get the ball where I wanted it. Let me eyes follow where I wanted the ball to go."
Everything was working for Soroka from there on out as he retired nine in a row. His curveball was freezing hitters, his fastball had some nice sink flowing, and his changeup was getting people out. He got Conde to strikeout on two nasty pitches to end the third, the first a deceptive 83 mile per hour change, and then an 85 mile per hour curve that Conde just watched the bottom completely fall out of, frozen at the plate.
"Two seamer, sinker was going down," Soroka said of his pitches that were working, especially after being sported a two-run lead in the first. "After the first inning I was able to keep the ball down a little more. We went up a little bit and I was able to keep them off balance with the slider. It all fell into place."
All in all, it was arguably Soroka’s most dominant performance of the season. He went 7.2 innings, landing 64 percent of his pitches for strikes, striking out four and walking just one (also hitting a batter back in that first inning), while allowing just one run. When you look back at the one run, you realize that it was created by the flukiest single you’d ever seen, first bouncing of Soroka’s glove causing it to ricochet off the diving Josephina's glove and trickling to the lip of the outfield grass.
He was able to keep his velocity pretty well throughout the night, although there was definitely a dip by the fifth inning, having throwing 53 of his 100 pitches through four. His fastball held around 92 to 94 throughout the first four innings, and then settled in around the 90 to 91 range for the duration of his outing. The curve, change and slider never seemed compromised until his final batter, his first walk of the night. It’s amazing that the 19 year old righty — who has made more starts and pitched more innings than at any other point in his life — is seemingly getting stronger as September crawls on.
"Advice from everybody," Soroka credits his conditioning to. "Frank [Witkowski, Strength and Conditioning coach] has been really good, we haven’t slacked off in any running or lifting. I try to eat as healthy as I can living the minor league life. Sometimes it’s not that great, but it helps.
"Although I did eat Waffle House three days in a row in Augusta," Soroka added with a laugh.
The Rome Braves won the first battle, and it was behind the brilliant performance of Soroka. The faith they had in handing him the ball in Game 1 — a game that has seen 77 percent of the victors advance to the Championship Series — shows that the Braves are seeing more and more of a future ace in their young righty.
"It feels great," Soroka said of getting the nod in Game 1 and seemingly not having any limitations. "I’m glad they let me take the ball out for the last inning. I can’t express how good a feeling it is that they have that trust in me to go out there and get as many outs as possible."