Calgary's Mike Soroka returns home after record-setting season with Braves
22-year-old pitcher from Bishop Carroll High School won 1st playoff appearance
Stepping into the Atlanta Braves dugout for the first time, 21-year-old Mike Soroka, a graduate of Calgary's Bishop Carroll High School, saw some familiar faces, and others he hadn't met yet.
He had received the call a few days prior — he was being called up from the triple-A Gwinnett Stripers and would make his Major League Baseball debut against the New York Mets on May 1, 2018.
It gave him a few days to make calls to friends and family to ensure they'd be at Citi Field in New York.
Three quick scores at the top of the first inning put the Braves up early. Then, it was Soroka's time to take the mound.
"Make sure you have fun," veteran right fielder Nick Markakis said to Soroka, stopping him as he stepped out of the dugout.
Soroka might have been thinking about any number of things as he walked out to the mound: how his friends and family had travelled there to watch, or perhaps how a national television audience was ready to make a judgment on his performance.
And he noticed a few things, like how there was an upper deck in this stadium. How everything was a bit louder, and how the scoreboard was a little larger.
But such pressure was quickly shrugged off by the rookie, revealing a composed approach to the game that has become emblematic of his young MLB career.
"The stadium is bigger, it's louder, but it's the same mound you've been doing it on for so long," Soroka said. "Just in a different spot."
A season to remember
Though Soroka would go on to suffer an injury less than two weeks after his successful debut against the Mets, his return to the starting rotation in 2019 marked the beginning of a remarkable season for the Calgary native.
Soroka made 29 starts in the 2019 season, posting a 13-4 record with a 2.68 ERA and 142 strikeouts. For a brief period, those stats put the hurler in the conversation for the Cy Young award — a feat accomplished only once by a rookie, in 1981 by Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela.
He set a record with the Braves, being the youngest Atlanta pitcher to be named to the National League All-Star team.
But Soroka's biggest test came during his playoff debut against the St. Louis Cardinals on Oct. 6, with the series tied 1-1.
"I was definitely amped up. It was probably the most adrenaline I've had since my debut," Soroka said. "It's something else — something you've never experienced. You have to remind yourself to take a deep breath and enjoy the experience … you don't know that it won't be your last playoff game. Some guys just don't get that opportunity."
Once again, Soroka was stellar, striking out seven hitters and allowing two hits and one run as the Braves defeated the Cardinals in 3-1.
In the post-game press conference, Braves manager Brian Snitker raved about the 22-year-old from Calgary.
"I thought he handled it just like I thought he would handle it," he said. "The maturity, the ability to slow a game down, to stay in the moment, to battle the inner battles of the hitter, the innings, the whole thing and trying to win that battle. It doesn't surprise me how he did."
'There's always more to learn'
Soroka credits his ability to perform under pressure to a simple, almost Zen-like approach: staying in the moment. The pitcher has no pre-game rituals beyond physical warm-ups, and seeks to streamline his process as much as possible.
"The more things you have, the more things that might go wrong. So I like to be somebody where if things don't go exactly as planned, I'm not panicking over things like rain delays or games being pushed back a day," he said. "I keep it as light as possible."
He pointed to his upbringing in Calgary as being instrumental in developing his psyche.
"I didn't have too much pressure put on me to perform from too many spots. I was allowed to go out there and play, and I understand there's a life outside baseball," he said. "Baseball doesn't define who I am as a person, and tomorrow is still going to happen. So it's easy to take a deep breath and go have fun."
Back in Calgary after the Braves' eventual 3-2 series loss to the Cardinals, Soroka is already itching to get back onto the mound.
"Obviously, we would have loved to play on.… But having been able to go out there and feel as good as I've felt all year and execute as good as I ever have, that goes into so much of what we've worked for all year," Soroka said. "It's a testament to the work we've put it. And it's understanding that you can do it again. We want to be there next year."