Mike Soroka dazzles, feels strong in first rehab start with Rome Braves

Braves pitcher Mike Soroka delivers during an intrasquad game on Saturday, July 18, 2020 in Atlanta.   Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

Braves pitcher Mike Soroka delivers during an intrasquad game on Saturday, July 18, 2020 in Atlanta. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

ROME – What a sight for Braves fans: Mike Soroka back on a mound, stifling hitters with that stellar sinker and working efficiently in keeping the opposition scoreless.

Fourteen months ago, it was fair to wonder whether that would occur again. After 10 months of rehab, Soroka re-ruptured his Achilles and underwent his third surgery on the tendon in a year.

“The day that it happened, I was probably asking the same questions you were,” Soroka said. “‘Am I done? Is this it?’”

Tuesday was a milestone. Soroka began his long-awaited rehab assignment with High-A Rome. Soroka looked sensational, throwing 45 pitches (35 strikes) over four scoreless innings. He allowed one hit and struck out eight of the first nine hitters he faced. His fastball velocity hovered around 92-93 mph.

“I felt like I could’ve got outs in the big leagues tonight,” Soroka said.

Most importantly, Soroka looked healthy. He appeared comfortable on the mound. He reminded spectators how exceptional his talent is. Soroka was an All-Star at age 21. He was the Braves’ opening day starter in 2020.

But those days seem faint memories given all that’s unfolded with the player and team since. While the Braves have won a couple more division titles and a World Series, Soroka has been behind the scenes, working to build a comeback story anyone with a pulse could appreciate.

Soroka’s first roadblock occurred during the truncated 2020 campaign when he tore his right Achilles during the third inning of his third start. He was injured while sprinting off the mound to cover first base early in a contest against the Mets. Soroka underwent surgery on the Achilles in Green Bay, Wisconsin, with Dr. Robert Anderson operating.

Braves manager Brian Snitker and a trainer help pitcher Mike Soroka off the field on Monday, August 3, 2020 in Atlanta.    Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: Curtis Compton

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Credit: Curtis Compton

The Braves hoped Soroka would bolster their rotation sometime in 2021. He pitched in the team’s final spring training game, targeting a late-April return. Soroka suffered right-shoulder inflammation, however, and was shut down.

Soroka later felt discomfort in his Achilles and underwent exploratory surgery May 17 in Green Bay. It turns out his body was rejecting the internal sutures placed in the Achilles during his first surgery. The Achilles itself was healed, meaning Soroka could’ve still potentially returned during the season.

Then came the latest blow: Soroka, on his first day out of a walking boot, felt a pop walking to the clubhouse at Truist Park. In a matter of steps, nearly a year of progress was wiped out.

The Braves announced June 26, 2021, that Soroka re-tore his right Achilles and would require another surgery. Soroka was forced back to square one after undergoing his third Achilles surgery in a year.

“Something didn’t work the first time (surgery),” Soroka said. “It was a bigger surgery. It’s something they went old school with, put a whole bunch of stuff in there to make sure it’s not going anywhere. It’s scarred up. So I have a big fat Achilles now, but at least it’s not going anywhere.

“We knew the timeline would be longer. Just more time off your feet, more time for everything to forget what it’s supposed to do. Getting through it, understanding it’s not going to be perfect, but different can still be good. That was an important distinction to make at a certain point, saying it doesn’t feel completely like my left. It’s probably never going to.

“I still can jump without a problem. I don’t have to dunk off my right foot. If I was in a different sport, I’d have to cut, run routes, catch a ball in the end zone, it might be a different story. But thankfully, we’re in a good place. I have a good home on the mound to test it out.”

That first test was somewhat a taste of normalcy. Soroka was back on the mound facing hitters in Georgia again, albeit in front of 1,475 people. He’ll take it: “Not too many people in the backfields in Florida,” he said, referencing where he’d been working out at the Braves’ complex.

The Greensboro Grasshoppers won’t be confused with the Los Angeles Dodgers, but rehab assignments are feeling and process over results. Still, these results were quite good.

Braves broadcasters Chip Caray, center left, and Jeff Francoeur, center right, interview Braves pitcher Mike Soroka, center, as they broadcast from the right field stands on May 27, 2022.  (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Soroka was perfect in his first three frames. Runners reached on an error and a soft single in the fourth, but that just allowed Soroka to relive the thrill of managing baserunners. He didn’t get a chance to field a bunt or cover first base, which is something he wants to experience in coming outings.

The greatest takeaway of the performance was how Soroka flooded the zone and generated a sizable number of swings and misses. His sinker was the best it’s been, he said. He was originally scheduled for three innings, but his pitch count allowed for a fourth.

“It’s still the best feeling in baseball to me when you blow a ball by a guy,” Soroka said. Capturing that feeling again was necessary.

“Part of you wonders whether you still have it, too, with the way baseball is going,” Soroka said. “You’re starting to see better and better talent. Baseball is getting younger. Guys are throwing harder, they’re hitting the ball farther. You start to wonder, ‘Am I still there?’ So tonight was pretty big for that, too.”

The encouraging debut allows one’s mind to run wild with thoughts of Soroka rejoining the Braves late this year and helping in October. Who could forget his only postseason appearance, when he allowed one run across seven innings to defeat the Cardinals in St. Louis? Even in smaller inning increments, if he’s anything like his old self, fans will naturally wonder if Soroka could aid the Braves’ repeat efforts.

He suggests curbing that enthusiasm.

“I will pitch there whenever we’re ready,” Soroka said. “There are still some things we need to iron out. That four-seam command, it will come. But whenever we’re ready, I’m ready. Let’s go.”

Asked if he had any expectations for this season, Soroka added he didn’t, “especially with how the (Braves) roster is going.” He doesn’t know his schedule moving forward and he doesn’t know what will unfold throughout the process, so consider his mentality start-to-start.

Soroka and the Braves want to make sure he’s ready for the stress of major-league innings before he returns. It’s been a lengthy, challenging process for Soroka; one that could break even the toughest-minded individual.

There were times of doubt during the recovery process, he admits. His rehab for the second tear was more difficult. It’s required additional work, physically and mentally.

His father Gary has been his “rock, that consistent voice” who’s guided him through the worst days. Gary even sent him motivational videos of Kobe Bryant – one of the highest-profile athletes to suffer an Achilles tear – on Instagram Monday night.

“He keeps me in line and trusting it, understanding there are battles out there being fought,” Soroka said of his father. “Guys go through double Tommy Johns. It happens. I’m very grateful for him to keep me on that path.”

Mike Soroka is all smiles in the dugout after going 6 1/3 scoreless innings against the New York Mets on June 13, 2018, in Atlanta.  Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

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Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

White Sox infielder Jake Burger, who also twice tore his Achilles, has been an important resource for Soroka. Burger, whose second surgery was performed by Dr. Anderson, has explained what Soroka will feel and why. The pitcher has also worked with Bob Keyes, owner of Bio Kinetics in Utah, to further fortify his mechanics.

Soroka said his Achilles feels tighter and he’s learning to work with that. “It’s strong,” he said. “It’s definitely tighter, which is a good thing because it led me down a path to understanding how to throw the ball properly so I won’t get hurt.”

The pitcher continued, explaining he’s getting accustomed to his new mechanics.

“I don’t know if I ever would’ve broken myself down to the point where I felt like I needed to revamp some things,” he said. “I’m sure you can look at video now and see some glaring differences. It’s in a good place. I’m excited to see where we go from here.”

Eventually, Soroka hopes, that place is Atlanta. Just don’t ask him when that might be.