LAKELAND, Fla. — Technically, Michael Soroka did not “return” Wednesday. He pitched last season and expected to enter spring training fully healthy.
In a way, though, Wednesday felt momentous, if only because it marked the biggest step in Soroka’s progression to this point as he hopes to again be part of the Braves’ starting rotation.
“There’s a fine line between celebrating and being proud of yourself, being proud of the work that you put in,” Soroka said after his Grapefruit League debut. “I am that. I don’t think this is quite a celebratory day yet.
“That’ll come, though.”
For now, this is a small victory: In a 5-3 win over the Tigers at Joker Marchant Stadium, Soroka hurled 36 pitches (his limit was 35) over 1-1/3 innings to complete his scheduled workload. He allowed two runs – one earned – on three hits (his defense could’ve helped him out more). He struck out one batter and walked one. He threw two wild pitches (though those were balls in the dirt that were blocked and got away from the catcher enough for the runner to advance).
“I thought for the most part, it was good,” Soroka said. “What we came out here to accomplish was to kind of get our feet wet in a game again and feel good coming out of it, and that’s done. From there, it’s a win. But obviously being a competitor, I want to be a little sharper on the edges. It was a little all over the place, but we threw some really, really good pitches, some ones to make some adjustments on. That’s what spring training’s for, right? So, excited to get back out there again.”
There were multiple positives from the right-hander’s outing.
Soroka hit 96 mph once and 95 mph another time. His sinker averaged 93.4 mph.
On one occasion, he threw a full-count, 86 mph slider down and away for a swinging strikeout. Even if his slider was a tad inconsistent, Soroka felt confident about its velocity. Early in his career, he threw it too hard. Last year, he struggled to throw it with enough velocity. On Wednesday, it averaged 84.4 mph and many registered at 84-86 mph.
Soroka also might’ve eased some fans’ minds. On one occasion, he got off the mound and cleanly fielded a dribbler, then threw to first base for the out on a close play. On another, he ran from the mound and past third base to back up a play. (Because of a throwing error, the ball got past the third baseman.)
“I actually opened it up even more (on the throw) there at third that went to the tarp,” Soroka said. “It’s nice because I can kind of come back out of it and say, ‘All right, I didn’t even think about it.’ And I know everybody else probably is, everybody else is probably thinking it’s pretty typical that (in the) first inning, I’m having to jump off the mound to get a swinging bunt. It’s nice to do that, nice to show people I’m still somewhat athletic.”
In Soroka’s first inning, the leadoff man reached when Ehire Adrianza committed an error on a 103.5 mph grounder. Soroka then threw two wild pitches – that might have been more like passed balls – that allowed the runner to go from first to third. Then Riley Greene smoked a 108.7 mph single to score the runner.
In the second inning, Soroka walked the leadoff man after starting him out 0-2. The next batter singled to right field, and a hard throw to third – eventually ruled a throwing error – got past the third baseman, which allowed the runner, who started at first, to score on the play.
For the most part, Soroka flashed good stuff, especially considering this was his first spring game. Soroka’s slider should improve because, he said, “I typically don’t throw (it) too early in camp. I don’t throw in my bullpens between starts because I gotta rip it. So it’s a feel pitch that’s gonna come back. It’ll just take getting out there hopefully another time or so.”
Of Soroka’s stuff, Braves manager Brian Snitker said: “It looked good. He’s just rusty. I figured the command would be shaky because he hadn’t been out there. But I’ll say, the slider had good bite, the fastball had good velocity, the movement was good. Everything’s good. It was good. It was just great getting him out there.”
Soroka said he will pitch again in five or six days. He isn’t sure exactly when because Charlie Morton, who threw in North Port on Wednesday, also will need to stay on schedule to prepare for the regular season. But Soroka said he’ll have one more Grapefruit League start.
Soroka is endlessly positive. Given an unfortunate hand, he has worked and worked to return to a point where the Braves could consider him for their rotation. Two Achilles tendon tears. Elbow soreness that ended his 2022 season. Hamstring tightness when he reported to camp this year.
His positivity is admirable.
“Even the second time when that (Achilles tendon tear) happened, and then when I talked to him, it was amazing how he was handling (it), putting everything in perspective,” Snitker said. “When you see what those guys have to go through any time they’re rehabbing a major injury, surgery, anything like that, it’s tough on them because they want to be out there playing. That groundhog day that they go through all the time to get there, he maintained an unbelievable take on things and attitude, and I think that’s part of the reason why you’re gonna see him out here (Wednesday).”
Wednesday marked the latest stop in Soroka’s comeback journey, though he isn’t trying to view it like that.
“I’ve kind of said it before, not making this out to be some big story for me, right? Like there’s this big finish line, big end,” he said. “It’s a continual process. Talking to some guys, especially guys like Charlie Morton who have had comebacks before – he’s had ups and downs in his career – I think the more you try and glorify your comeback, the tougher (it becomes) and the more pressure you put on yourself.
“I understand there’s some things I really got to work on still. It was nice to get out there and compete again, and kind of be considered part of the mix. So that was a good start. But onward and upward.”
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