Elliott: Soroka learned early from mentor Reitsma

Former major leaguer Chris Reitsma (Calgary, Alta.), left, Sunday’s hero RHP Mike Soroka (Calgary, Alta.) and Calgary PBF Redbirds. coach Jim Lawson. Photo: Lawson family, Alberta Dugout Stories.

Former major leaguer Chris Reitsma (Calgary, Alta.), left, Sunday’s hero RHP Mike Soroka (Calgary, Alta.) and Calgary PBF Redbirds. coach Jim Lawson. Photo: Lawson family, Alberta Dugout Stories.

By Bob Elliott

Canadian Baseball Network

In the 1995-96 off season a number of cross checkers and scouts make the trek to Calgary.

Blair Kubicek was giving pitching pointers to his protegee.

“If a Detroit Tiger scout was coming I’d buy a Tiger had for him to wear to the workout, if it was a San Francisco Giants guy coming in, I’d give him a Giants cap,” Kubicek said.

Entering the 1996 draft Calgary right-hander Chris Reitsma had a 60 OFP (Overall Future Potential, on a 20-to-80 scale)) dropped on him by the Major League Scouting Bureau. Kubicek wanted everything in Reitsma’s favour -- as he was auditioning for his favorite team -- but did the head ware really matter?

“After seeing him throw his bullpen he could have been wearing a Cowboy hat and it wouldn’t have mattered, I would have drafted him,” said Gary Rajsich, the Boston Red Sox evaluator who pushed for Boston to select Reitsma 34th over-all.

Rajsich remembers his February trip to Alberta (Minus 51 with the wind chill). He arrived bundled up to see Reitsma throw his bullpen inside a bubble. How hard was he throwing? Well, Rajsich didn’t have a gun.

“I’d only finished playing a few years before (his final year was with the 1988 Chunichi Dragons),” said Rajsich. “So, I stood in against him. Got in the box. It was plenty hard enough for me ... probably 94-96 MPH.”

Reitsma pitched 11 seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, Atlanta Braves and the Seattle Mariners compiling a 32-46 won-loss record with a 4.70 ERA and recording 37 saves.

When he retired Reitsma returned to Calgary, but he never left the game. He coached. He instructed. He passed on pitching tips he had learned from coaches along the way from rookie-class Fort Myers to class-A Battle Creek, to class-A Sarasota, double-A Trenton and triple-A Louisville along with major league bullpens.

Long-time coach and Okotoks Dawgs Hall of Famer Kubicek doesn’t mind talking about crossing paths with a once in a lifetime arm.

Reitsma came across the same type of once in a lifetime arm in RHP Mike Soroka (Calgary, Alta.) as a 13-year-old, nine years ago with coach Jim Lawson’s Calgary PBF Redbirds.

“I’d hang out with Jim’s team, one day this bigger sized kid -- for 13 -- shows and it’s Mike, he was a goalie then,” said Reitsma from Calgary. “His dad was even bigger.

“He was a lower slot kid. Everything came easy when he threw the ball. Things always came easy for him. We raised his arm angle a little. Anything I suggested he had it turned around by the next time I saw him. I don’t deserve any credit.”

That’s not what Soroka says.

We spoke to two scouts who recall putting a 60 OFP on Soroka. Just like Reitsma. Another said, “He looked like a 70 against the Cardinals.”

Reitsma said Soroka asked him questions as a 14 year-old far beyond his years ... like “Tell me how big-league pitchers would approach this or what they would think of that?” Every morsel of advice or suggestions about Soroka’s mechanics made, the pupil picked up and Reitsma would say “OK let’s move on.”

The best advice Reitsma received which he passed on to Soroka was learned from Red Sox pitching coach Al Nipper and Don Gullet of the Cincinnati Reds.

“And that was to make a commitment to one pitch at a time, if someone makes an error or there is a bad call, it doesn’t matter, throw your next pitch,” Retsma said. “If you make a great sinker down and away ... and the guy hits a double down the line, remember the pitch, not the double. Then, throw the next pitch.”


Canadian Junior National Team pitching coach Chris Reitsma (Calgary, Alta.), left with eventual first rounder RHP Mike Soroka (Calgary, Alta.)

When Soroka was 15, Reitsma called Greg Hamilton of Baseball Canada to say that his pupil deserved a look with the Junior National Team.

Soroka was mid to high 80s, then the slow progression of body maturity took place. As Reitsma remembers, “He kept on getting better and better, kind of the ideal way you want a player to progress.”

Reitsma kept working on Soroka’s mind set.

Like Roy Halladay, Reitsma is a big fan of Harvey Dorfman’s The Mental ABCs of Pitching: A Handbook for Performance Enhancement. He guesses he’s bought almost 20 copies to hand out to his pitchers. Reitsma said that the “book is timeless.”

“Mike had Cal Quantrill to look up to with the Junior National Team, then he’s a first round pick and he hit the ground running,” Reitsma said.

In the spring of 2018, Reitsma was scouting for the Orioles when he saw Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos at a University of Florida game. Both were watching Gators’ RHP Jackson Kowar, who was selected in the first round (33rd over-all) by Reitsma’s Royals.

Reitsma told Anthopoulos, “There’s never been a time when I’d say a 20 year old is ready, but he is. He is so emotionally intelligent.”

* * *

Long before spin rates, we knew how the game spun -- whether it be a pitch on the way to the plate or upstairs -- Rajsich, was hired as scouting director of the Orioles in 2011. He hired Reitsma to evaluate pitchers. The talented scout with the special eyes was together with the Big Prairie Dawg.

“Chris loved Mike Soroka, he was right about Mike’s competitiveness,” Rajsich recalled. “Chris told us how good his composure was, how it was the most impressive thing about him.”

In the Orioles draft room at Camden Yards the O’s pulled off Soroka. A high school pitcher from Alberta or a college outfielder from Florida State? Baltimore chose D.J. Stewart 25th over-all. Three picks later Soroka was selected. Soroka made his debut at Citi Field May 1, 2018. Stewart arrived in the majors Sept. 12, 2018. The high schooler beat the college player

* * *

In what the announcers called “a pivotal Game 3” Soroka threw 90 pitches -- 54 strikes -- in seven innings leaving down 1-0.

Soroka pitched seven superb innings throwing two-hit ball in his October debut. The right-handed hitting Marcell Ozuna hit a check-swing blooper inside the right field foul line for a double. A Yadier Molina ground ball and a fly ball by Matt Carpenter put the Cardinals up 1-0.

After Ozuna’s bleeder, Soroka retired 17 consecutive hitters until he allowed a single in the seventh.

Reitsma watched it with on TV with his wife and admitted he gets “more nervous, from the first pitch,” watching Soroka than he ever was pitching in the majors.

“My wife told me ‘Finally you get a dose of your own medicine,’” said Reitsma.

He struck out Dexter Fowler, Kolten Wong, Paul DeJong, Adam Wainright (twice), Molina and Carpenter.

Soroka retired Paul Goldschmidt, Tommy Edman, Fowler, DeJong, Carpenter and Molina on a fly balls or pop ups.

He erased Molina, Wong (twice), Goldschmidt (twice), Ozuna, Edman and Fowler on ground balls.

RHP Mike Soroka pitched seven innings allowing two hits and one run in Game 3 of the National League Division Series.

RHP Mike Soroka pitched seven innings allowing two hits and one run in Game 3 of the National League Division Series.

Reitsma said he noticed both Molina and Goldschmidt were “trying to look away ... lay off the sinker because it sinks so much it will be a ball.” Reitsma said “Mike sped them up and slowed them down.”

The pupil called his mentor after the game to talk over the game.

“He’s better than I ever was,” Reitsma said. “This kid is extra special. He’ll be a front-line guy. He’s like my little brother. I tried not to mess him up, I don’t deserve any credit.”

MLB Network’s Dan Plesac said Soroka pitched “like a 10-year veteran.”

Rajsich was flying to Tampa Sunday so he missed the first four innings before he got to a TV. So he did not see all of the masterpiece theatre adding “what I hear Mike really had it going on.”

Rajsich said scouts still ask him, “Don’t you wish you drafted Soroka back in 2015?” And he answers “We did. We’re both with Atlanta now.” That’s why he was in Tampa to do advance work for the Houston Astros-Rays series. Rajsich scouted for the Jays under Anthopoulos and the former Jays GM was quick to re-hire him.


RHP Chris Reitsma (Calgary, Alta.) pitched for the Braves in 2004-06.

* * *

Soroka is a 6-foot-5, 225 pounder, Reitsma is a 6-foot-5, 215-pounder.

Does Soroka remind Rajsich of anyone?

“He reminds me of Chris ... Chris was like ‘just give him the ball,’” Rajsich said. “Chris loved to compete.”

From Kubicek to Rajsich, to Reitsma to Soroka.