By Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network
Alex Anthopoulos was asked Tuesday night if he remembered the first time he saw Mike Soroka pitch?
Anthopoulos recalled watching the Calgary right-hander in a red and white Canada uniform pitch for the Junior National Team against his Toronto Blue Jays on March 15, 2015 at Dunedin.
“I remember the spring game, but we had seen him the fall before at the Mattick Complex and we were pretty excited,” whispered Anthopoulos into his cell phone as the Atlanta Braves bus chugged its way through traffic after Soroka pitched six innings in his major-league debut and gain the victory in a 3-2 decision over the first-place New York Mets.
That spring afternoon in 2015 the grandstand resembled the lobby at the winter meetings. Scouting directors, cross checkers and scouts were on hand to see Mississauga slugger Josh Naylor of Ontario Blue Jays, Oakville outfielder Miles Gordon of the Great Lake Canadians, Orleans outfielder Demi Orimoloye of the Ottawa-Nepean Canadians and Soroka ... all of whom would be drafted in the first four rounds.
Soroka was in good shape. He’d given up one run with two out in his second inning of work when he induced what looked like to be an inning-ending ground ball.
Not so fast. Error.
There were a couple of hits, two more infield errors and by the time Soroka left, he had allowed seven runs -- one of which was earned. He headed upstairs to the press box to do an in-game interview with The Fan’s Mike Wilner.
And the next stop was the booth next door. He was invited into Anthopoulos’s box to meet with Blue Jays executives Andrew Tinnish, Perry Minasian and Dana Brown. The line of questioning, was as with all young prospects “Will you sign if we draft you?” As Soroka was about to depart, Brown added jokingly, “Look if we draft you we promise we'll get some people who can catch the ball.”
“There were an awful lot of errors behind him and his pitch count got pretty high,” Anthopoulos said as the Braves charter moved from Citi Field in Queen’s towards the team’s Manhattan hotel.
A lot of fuss was made when Soroka was given his first start in New York against Noah Syndergaard and the first-place Mets.
“We knew Mike is not the type of kid who would get rattled,” Anthopoulos said. “We had no concern, he looked so good in the spring. He doesn’t get caught up in his emotions of making his debut. He was up here to win the game, that’s why he was here. It’s early but we’re playing well and he put us in a position to win.”
Anthopoulos passed first baseman Freddie Freeman in the clubhouse before the game. With a Canadian on the mound “It’s a guaranteed win night” one said to the other. Freeman was born in California, but his parents were born in Toronto and Windsor and he played in last year’s World Baseball Classic as a tribute to his mom’s memory.
“We knew his make up, we knew he would be able to handle the situation,” Anthopoulos said. “And we knew he would throw strikes and we field the ball well.”
Soroka allowed three hits to Yoenis Cespedes, including a homer, a double to Tomas Nido and singles to Jay Bruce and Todd Frazier
He struck out five: Adrian Gonzalez, who was in grade 10 when Soroka was born in 1997, Nido, Syndergaard and Asdrúbal Cabrera (twice).
Seated down the third base line were Jim Lawson, Soroka’s coach with the Calgary PBF Redbirds, Lawson’s wife Trudy and about 20 others from Calgary. They had made the last-minute trek to see Soroka make his first major-league start. A lot of people were wearing Calgary Redbirds garb and that was Trudy waving the Canadian flag.
Soroka’s former pitching coach Chris Reitsma, who works for the Baltimore Orioles was there too wearing a Baseball Canada jacket.
“How funny was that, he gets to hit before he gets to pitch,” Lawson said. The Braves managed five first-inning hits off Syndergaard, including a two-run double by Freeman. Atlanta had two runners aboard when Soroka bounced to first for the final out.
“When I coached him, he pitched and played first, his swing is still the same, even though he had not hit in four years,” said Lawson. “That’s the swing I know from the cages.”
A few days ago Soroka was riding the buses and was 2-0 for triple-A Gwinnett Stripers with a 1.99 ERA in four starts. He also had 24 strikeouts in 22 2/3 innings. All those gaudy numbers despite the fact he’s 6 1/2 years younger than the average age.
“I was so proud to see him, words can’t describe it,” Lawson said. “I remember at 14 years old with the Redbirds. He hit clean up and was our ace.”
As Soroka emerged from the dugout for the on-deck circle in the top of the first, Lawson thought back “on a personal side,” to his son Trent Lawson, a former Soroka teammate. He also thought of his team walking onto a diamond in Arizona.
“They all should take pride in where Mikey’s came from and how far he has gone,” Lawson said. “It is fantastic. He is so deserving.”
Lawson also recalled Soroka’s final start before the Braves selected him 28th overall at a tournament in Kalispell, Mont.
“There must have been 20 scouts in the stands, Mikey was trying to get his velocity as high as he could to impress,” Lawson said. “The Kalispell team was using aluminum bats and with aluminum it doesn’t matter how hard you throw. They were gunning for him.”
Two of Soroka’s former teammates are playing college ball: infielder Josh Trybuch, with the Wheaton University Lyons in Massachusetts and Trent Lawson of the Huntington University Foresters.
After the game, manager Brian Snitker heaped plenty of praise on Soroka. Yet he would not commit to Soroka making more than a spot start. Anibal Sanchez could be ready to come off the DL to start Sunday at home against San Francisco.
Everyone knows it’s best to buy a plane tickets a couple of weeks in advance.
The Calgary crew did not have that much notice. The calls came Sunday that Soroka would pitch Tuesday.
“Trudy and myself took the last two seats, it was expensive,” Lawson said. “You know what. I’m not even thinking about dollars and cents right now.”
Watching a player you coached for four years make his major league debut?
Unanswered questions: St. Louis outfielder Tyler O’Neill was first as predicted, and Soroka was the second Canadian to make his debut, who has next? ... Was the story line out of Dunedin this spring not that the Blue Jays starting pitching was their best asset? ... So who will it be as the top Canuck on draft day? Perfect Game and MLB.Pipeline likes Mississauga’s Noah Naylor of the Ontario Blue Jays to go in the first round. Meanwhile, Baseball America has Mississauga outfielder Tristan Pompey of the Kentucky Wildcats as the top Canuck.
Flashback: Remember when Jordan Gibbons, the talented singing daughter of the Blue Jays manager, and her band Southtown played at the Rogers Centre and the historic Horseshoe Tavern? Jordan has a new group called The Barrens, who play “alternative-country”.music. They are based out of Austin, Tex. They are booked to plaay at the same convention this month with the likes of Charlie Daniels and Travis Tritt among others. The group combines Jordan's country roots with Dana Smith’s (lead guitar/producer) alternative rock influences. Narrowed down, it is sort of like The Wreckers meets Kings of Leon.
Joseph, Joseph, Joseph: Joey Votto is turning into Mr. Canada. He wrote Humboldt Strong on his cleats before he could obtain a T-shirt. Then, he was spotted in the Minnesota dugout wearing a Humboldt Strong shirt. The green shirt was made by 22Fresh, a clothing company started by Kip Simon who played at University of Evansville who used to play with Team Saskatchewan. His father Doug Simon player outfield for Team Canada at eight international events ... Votto also wore the name of police Constable Ken Lam on his cleats as a tribute to the officer hailed as a hero for his calm takedown of the man alleged to have deliberately struck pedestrians on Yonge St. And he was National League player of the Week
Minnesota/Milwaukee memory: I must have seen Paul Molitor play about 10 or 12 times a year for eight seasons before he joined the Blue Jays in 1993. I’ve seen his Minnesota Twins make more sloppy mistakes the past two nights than Molitor’s teams did in the eight years combined.
Mini Memory: Every time I see coach Gene Glynn, now with the Twins, I think of Larry Walker. Doesn’t matter if Glynn is scouting, coaching with the San Francisco Giants, the Colorado Rockies or whomever. Glynn was coaching third base for the 1985 class-A Utica Blue Sox. Walker a hockey goalie turned rookie ball player did not have a feel for the game. On a hit-and-run Walker was off to the races from first. One problem. He picked up Glynn late and the ball was in the air. Glynn pointed for Walker, now nearing shortstop, to get back so Walker cut across the infield --- failing to re-touch second. Walker slid in on a bang-bang play at first and was called out. Walker began to argue, when manager Ken Brett told him to get into the dugout. “He came there from age 18 and developed into a Hall of Fame player,” said Glynn.