The other time Mike Soroka faced the Blue Jays in Dunedin was late in 2014 spring training, as a 17-year-old high school senior pitching for the Canadian junior national team in an exhibition against big-leaguers.
He gave up seven runs in the second inning, six of them unearned because of a few errors by his young teammates.
Soroka had better defense behind him when he faced the Blue Jays again Tuesday, but the biggest reason for his success on this day was Soroka himself.
This 20-year-old right-hander is the real deal, as he demonstrated last season as the youngest pitcher in Double-A and is showing now in his first major league camp.
He faced six batters and recorded six outs while pitching the fifth and sixth innings of the Braves’ 5-1 win against Toronto at Dunedin Stadium. In three spring appearances, he’s allowed two hits, one run and no walks with five strikeouts in five innings.
“It’s why we’re excited around here, guys like that,” said Braves manager Brian Snitker, who when asked if Soroka was close to being ready for the majors didn’t hesitate with his answer: “Absolutely.”
At the Blue Jays’ longtime spring training home, there is a distinct Canadian vibe to the proceedings and the fan base.
“Yeah, you felt it,” Soroka said of facing “Canada’s team” at its spring home. “They played the Canadian national anthem. That was pretty special to get out there and hear that again. I know how many Canadians are in the stands, so it kind of almost felt like a home crowd in a sense.”
But Soroka has felt comfortable since his first outing – it was against the defending World Series champion Astros – and the anthem only made him feel more at home.
He was excited to face Toronto, but adrenaline doesn’t seem to affect Soroka like your typical 20-year-old who’s never pitched above the Double-A level in official games.
“That’s pretty cool to be able to come in and have that confidence,” he said. “I think a lot of that goes back to junior national days being out here. Technically you were overmatched at that point, so now that you have the stuff to compete and dominate, I think it goes a long ways.”
He figures that he pitched between 70 and 80 innings against Single-A teams as a member of the Canadian junior team in his final two years of high school. The Braves selected him with the 28th pick of the first round in the 2015 draft out of Bishop Carroll High School in Calgary.
Even in the 2015 game against the Blue Jays, Soroka made a good impression despite the six unearned runs. Blue Jays veteran catcher Russell Martin had a double against him in that big inning three years ago and afterward said he was nonetheless impressed with Soroka’s fastball.
On Tuesday, Soroka showed why so many more have since been impressed. He had a 2.75 ERA in 26 starts at Double-A Mississippi while racking up 125 strikeouts and 34 walks in 153 2/3 innings. That helped him climb 21 spots to No. 27 on Baseball America’s preseason Top 100 prospects list.
The first batter he faced Tuesday, Randal Grichuk, hit a single through the left side of the infield before Soroka induced a double-play grounder from Kevin Pillar and retired the last four batters he faced on a pop-up, a ground-out and consecutive strikeouts by Yangervis Solarte and journeyman Gift Ngoepe.
“Soroka was just really good again,” Snitker said. “Man, it was sharp, it was crisp, live – the whole package.”