'Mike being Mike': Soroka's PS debut a doozy

October 7th, 2019

ST. LOUIS -- Growing up, got used to seeing Adam Wainwright pitch in October. He said he would watch playoff games on television at home in Calgary and think about someday being in Wainwright’s position, as “one of the staples of the postseason for a long time,” dueling another ace with his team’s season on the line.

Soroka lived that childhood fantasy on Sunday afternoon, going toe-to-toe with Wainwright at Busch Stadium and dazzling in his postseason debut. The right-hander fired seven efficient innings and struck out seven while allowing only two hits and one run in the Braves’ 3-1 win over the Cardinals in Game 3 of the National League Division Series.

Afterward, the 38-year-old veteran Wainwright flipped the script and marveled at the 22-year-old rookie Soroka.

“He was as nasty as any pitcher I’ve faced in the postseason,” Wainwright said. “Twenty-two years old, out there pitching on the big stage at a visiting park with 50,000 people cheering against you and a very tough lineup on our side. I was very impressed. I can’t be more impressed, actually.”

Wainwright commanded the spotlight in St. Louis with his throwback performance: 7 2/3 scoreless innings, eight strikeouts, 120 pitches. Dansby Swanson and Adam Duvall stole the show in the end by delivering clutch hits in Atlanta’s game-winning rally.

But don’t overlook what Soroka accomplished. It’s time to appreciate what he’s done all season -- and perhaps to wonder how he keeps getting better.

“If I’m a young kid,” closer Mark Melancon said, “I want to emulate him.”

Not that his teammates were in any way surprised by what Soroka did to shut down the Cardinals and put the Braves one win away from a trip to the NL Championship Series.

“I thought he handled it just like I thought he would handle it,” manager Brian Snitker said. “It doesn't surprise me how he did. Going against a great postseason pitcher, and he handled the moment very well.”

That the Braves expected Soroka’s performance didn’t make it any less incredible, however. While Wainwright spun 57 curveballs to silence the Braves’ bats, Soroka stuck to his strengths: sinkers and changeups down in the zone mixed with flawlessly executed sliders to keep the Cardinals off balance.

“He’s as good as it gets,” catcher Brian McCann said. “He stays composed. He was lights-out. I can’t say enough good things about it.”

“Just Mike being Mike,” Swanson added, smiling. “People say he's 22, acts like he's 62.”

What did “Mike being Mike” mean Sunday in the biggest game he’s ever pitched?

• He was the youngest Braves pitcher (22 years and 63 days) to start in the postseason since 21-year-old Steve Avery in Game 6 of the 1991 World Series.

• He became the youngest pitcher to start a road game in the postseason since Michael Wacha, also 22, in the 2013 World Series.

• He set a Braves postseason record by retiring 17 batters in a row between the second and seventh innings.

• He is the 10th pitcher in postseason history, and the youngest, to work at least seven innings while allowing only two baserunners.

• He only allowed the Cardinals to put 16 balls in play, and the seven they hit the hardest -- the only ones with an exit velocity of 90 mph or higher -- were all outs. Only eight balls were put in play harder than 80 mph. The Cardinals’ only extra-base hit against him was a bloop, 62.1 mph double by Marcell Ozuna that led to St. Louis’ only run.

“Everything was going. It was one of those days where everything shows up to play,” Soroka said. “You kind of gotta take advantage of those days.”

And the Braves, in turn, took advantage of Soroka’s poised, understated brilliance by taking him off the hook and rallying to win in the ninth. Those final two innings made Soroka anxious in a way he never felt during his seven innings on the mound.

“I was definitely much more nervous than I was out on the mound,” Soroka said. “Heart beating out of my chest after being on nothing but caffeine and adrenaline most of today is a lot of fun.”

Soroka’s teammates laud him for his maturity and composure beyond his years, his intense and intentional preparation and the level-headed confidence he carries into every situation. Those traits were on display all season as he put together a 2.68 ERA and a 1.55 mark on the road, where younger pitchers might be intimidated by hostile crowds or unfamiliar surroundings.

Not Soroka, though. During his duel with an October hero, the rookie was never rattled.

“I know if I'm not calm, I won't execute,” Soroka said. “These guys are the best of the best. If you understand and you know that, if you don't calm down, it's not going to go well. So, to me, I just don't really have a choice but to be calm.”