ATLANTA -- As Austin Riley soaked in the excitement of highlighting his Major League debut with a monstrous home run that helped the Braves claim a 4-0 win over the Cardinals on Wednesday night, his good friend Mike Soroka reminisced about where it all began for both of them in
ATLANTA -- As Austin Riley soaked in the excitement of highlighting his Major League debut with a monstrous home run that helped the Braves claim a 4-0 win over the Cardinals on Wednesday night, his good friend Mike Soroka reminisced about where it all began for both of them in the Rookie Level Gulf Coast League.
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“I think he had a 0-for-20 start in the GCL to start his career,” Soroka said. “We laugh about it because people were tweeting at him asking when it was time for him to go back to being a pitcher. We’re pretty glad he didn’t do that because he’s pretty special.”
Four years after many Major League clubs felt he had a better future as a pitcher, Riley is now prepared to further show why the Braves were wise to select him as a position player. There’s certainly no reason to question his raw power, which was displayed when he began the fourth inning by drilling Michael Wacha’s elevated, 2-1 fastball deep into the left-center-field seats.
“Those type of home runs, you don’t really feel,” Riley said. “It was awesome. I can’t be happier.”
Riley’s solo shot traveled a projected 438 feet with a 109.1 mph exit velocity, per Statcast. The blast mesmerized Soroka, who got caught up in the moment to the point he nearly forgot he was going to have to bat in the inning.
“I just remember sitting there in the dugout thinking about it and just watching him enjoy the moment,” Soroka said. “The next thing I know, I’m getting yelled at. … I’m supposed to be on deck and [Tyler Flowers] is three pitches into his at-bat.”
Asked about his reaction to the highly regarded prospect homering in his second career plate appearance, Braves manager Brian Snitker thought back to something Bobby Cox had said after Jason Heyward homered in his first career plate appearance on Opening Day in 2010.
“I remember when Jason Heyward hit his first one off [Carlos] Zambrano,” Snitker said. “I came in [the dugout] and Bobby said, ‘You think he wasn’t going to do that?’ I was kind of expecting that to happen, really.”
There was certainly reason to anticipate Riley doing something special. He arrived at the Major League level having homered in 10 of his 50 at-bats for Triple-A Gwinnett this month. His power surge led the Braves to transition the third baseman to the outfield last week and then have him join Atlanta’s roster once Gold Glove outfielder Ender Inciarte was placed on the injured list Wednesday.
“He’s amazing, we all know that,” Soroka said. “We saw his stats in the Minors. I’ve been growing up with him since we were drafted. It’s a lot of fun to watch. I got the tingles when he hit that homer.”
It was fitting for Soroka and Riley to share this special moment in a game during which both displayed their tremendous potential. The two have been linked since the Braves selected them both -- Soroka (28th) and Riley (41st) -- in the first round of the 2015 MLB Draft.
While Riley is just embarking on his career, Soroka has started this year at a record-setting pace. The seven scoreless frames delivered in this win over the Cardinals lowered his ERA to 0.98 through this season’s first six starts. The 21-year-old Canadian is the first Braves starter of the live-ball era (since 1920) to open a season by allowing one earned run or less over his first six starts.
Dating to last season, which was quickly halted by a right shoulder ailment, Soroka has allowed one earned run or fewer in nine of his first 11 career starts. He is the only Major League pitcher to do this dating to 1913, when earned runs became an official statistic in both leagues.
“He has lights-out stuff, and he’s been proving it since [playing for Class A Rome],” Riley said. “It was kind of relaxing being out there on defense. After he gets a couple runs, you know he’s going to give us a chance to win.”
Less than 24 hours after being in a Buffalo, N.Y., hotel room when he learned he was coming to the Majors, Riley was soaking in the thrill of a debut that proved to be every bit as memorable as he imagined back when he was growing up in Mississippi and dreaming about the chance to play for the Braves.
“I’m speechless,” Riley said. “I would have never guessed I’d have been right here to hit a home run in my debut and get to play for the Atlanta Braves.”
Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.