By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseballl Network
When Mike Soroka and Miles Gordon each arrived at Rogers Centre for their first Tournament 12 experiences, they had no idea that the event might be a launching pad helping them on the way to where they’ve each landed.
Soroka took part in the inaugural tournament two years ago, before being invited to the Canadian Junior National Team program for the first time, and long before he was eventually selected by the Atlanta Braves in the first round of this year’s draft, 28th overall.
The 6-foot-4, 195-pound right-handed hurler had heard all of the big names before – not including his own in that category – and couldn’t wait to take a major league mound for the first time. The native of Calgary, Alta., wanted to know how he might match up against some of the country’s best hitters and see where it could take him.
“I was fortunate enough to be able to do it the first year it was there, so I had that experience,” Soroka said. “I was able to see all the guys ahead of me.
“Obviously at that point I had heard all the big names out there, like Josh Naylor [12th overall by the Marlins this year], Demi Orimoloye [fourth round, Milwaukee Brewers this year] and Gareth Morgan [the highest Canadian selected in 2014, 74th overall by the Seattle Mariners] ...
“It was cool to see how close you were to being at the same level as those guys. My first outing, the nerves were going pretty good. That was probably the most nervous I’ve been on a mound in my life.”
Soroka started his professional career with the rookie-class Gulf Coast League Braves, where he posted a 1.80 ERA in three starts and 10 innings, walking one and striking out 11, before earning a promotion to class-A Danville. In the Appalachian League, the righty put up a 3.75 ERA over six starts and 24 frames, walking four and striking out 26 hitters.
It’s almost humorous for the 18-year-old pitcher to think now how far he has come, with a couple of months in the Braves organization under his belt, when less than two years ago he was starting for Alberta Red at Rogers Centre for the first time, feeling more butterflies than he’s ever felt.
“In a way I always get nervous for my starts, but it’s more of an excited-nervous. That first day was more of a nervous-nervous,” Soroka said. “I couldn’t eat, didn’t want to eat anything, and it really got to me. But as soon as I started being on the big stage more often it went pretty quickly.
“And then that fall [with Team Canada] pitching against pro hitters in the Fall Instructional League, you realize you can get anyone out no matter how hard you throw or what your pitch does. If you make a good pitch, you can get anyone out. That’s when things turned around a bit and I adopted a more fearless attitude on the mound. That’s been the biggest key over the last two years.”
Gordon broke out during the second-annual Tournament 12, a piece of the puzzle that started the young outfielder on his path to the Canadian Junior National Team, and then to being selected by the Cincinnati Reds in the fourth round of this year’s draft, the fourth Canuck chosen in June.
In 31 Arizona League Reds games, he had four doubles, three triples, 26 hits, 15 runs scored, 12 driven in, seven walks and five stolen bases in 31 games.
The 6-foot-1, 185-pound centre fielder had already made improvements on the field before T12, leaving the Oakville Royals program several months earlier and moving onto the Great Lake Canadians squad, but at the Blue Jays-hosted event he solidified himself on a larger scale as a soon-to-be professional, proving that not only could he play among the best the country had to offer, but that he was one of them.
“Whenever I talk to scouts, they say the first time they saw me was at T12,” Gordon said. “They had never really heard my name before. Then they were like, ‘Who is this guy?’ So, T12 definitely put my name on the map, and it helped with Team Canada a little bit, leading up to that after T12. The first real time that any scouts got the chance to see me was at T12.”
Not knowing at the time exactly where his future might lead, committing to the University of San Francisco shortly after playing at Tournament 12, and joining the Junior National Team for the first time on the October trip to face instructional league competition, Gordon soaked up his experience at Rogers Centre and enjoyed every moment.
“It was cool because that was the first big league park I ever played at, and it’s home, and it’s the Blue Jays,” the 17-year-old native of Oakville, Ont., said. “It was cool because I was on the Ontario Green team, so I was playing with Tristan Pompey [a friend and former teammate], and Adam Stern and Chris Robinson were my coaches [also Great Lake coaches], so it was really comfortable, almost like playing with my own team.
“It was awesome. We got to go in the clubhouse and the hitting tunnels, and being the first big league park I played at, it was pretty sweet.”
Soroka arrived to that same tournament last year a little bit late, stuck in Mexico with the rest of Team Canada after a hurricane had made it impossible to leave as scheduled. His experience the second time around was much different than his first, and he’s been happy to see how much both he and the event have evolved since its inception.
“I definitely felt a lot more relaxed,” Soroka said. “I had been with the Junior National Team for a year and I had played there before and things weren’t as new. They didn’t feel as big anymore so it was a lot easier to settle down and enjoy the experience.
“The whole thing was so well put on, and you couldn’t ask for anything better. It’s done a lot for Canadians going down to colleges in the last couple years … they’re starting to see names coming out of here and they want to be a part of that. It was really awesome to be able to kind of get it going.”