TORONTO -- When Mike Soroka traveled to Toronto with the rest of his Braves squad in mid-June, the rookie hurler felt as though he was headed for a homecoming of sorts.A native of Calgary, Alberta, Soroka was about to make the fifth start of his young career, and his first
TORONTO -- When Mike Soroka traveled to Toronto with the rest of his Braves squad in mid-June, the rookie hurler felt as though he was headed for a homecoming of sorts.
A native of Calgary, Alberta, Soroka was about to make the fifth start of his young career, and his first on home soil as a Major Leaguer.
"It was everything I imagined," Soroka said after that outing, a Blue Jays win on June 19 in which he took a no-decision after yielding four runs in 4 2/3 innings. "I went out there and seeing a lot of Canadians, a lot of Canadian flags, and hearing the anthem was pretty special. ... I took some time to take everything in before the game, and a lot of that was seeing friends and family, and a lot of that was feeling at home in a city that I've known a little bit, even though it's not my home city."
Less than five years before Soroka got the start against Toronto as a member of National League East-leading Atlanta, the right-hander made his debut on the Rogers Centre mound, representing Alberta at the inaugural Tournament 12.
The following year, just nine months before Soroka was selected 28th overall in the 2015 Draft, he suited up for Alberta Red a second time. His start for the squad followed a return to the country after being stranded in Mexico with the rest of the Canadian Junior National Team as a result of Hurricane Odile at the Pan American Championship.
"T12 was the last time he was in the SkyDome, except for the [Baseball Canada] banquets," Soroka's father, Gary, said. "That was the year they got stranded in Mexico. I flew in that day, and I might have even flown out that same day. I came in on the red eye and flew out that night, because he just wanted to get home and into bed after sitting on a tarmac for three or four days eating next to nothing."
Soroka threw four scoreless innings that day in front of a sparse crowd. When he returned in June this year, 32,466 people were in attendance for his Rogers Centre debut as a big leaguer, and the excitement and nerves were incredibly similar.
"It was pretty close, honestly," Soroka said. "I've talked to a lot of people about it before, and I used to get a little more nervous, even before the Draft. So it's pretty cool just to have those memories, knowing that you've been out there and you've been nervous before, and that's just normal. So to get out there and just have fun is really cool, too."
The return to Rogers Centre and the chance to pitch in his native land on the highest stage were reminders for Soroka and his father of everything the Canadian game has done for him along the way.
"It's always nice to hear the Canadian anthem, and it brings back memories of Team Canada," Gary said. "Team Canada, with Greg [Hamilton, director of Baseball Canada's national teams] and the program, is responsible for many of these kids who are on scholarships and in the pros. They've been a big part of most of them, and I can't say enough about them."
Added the young hurler: "Being here all started with Baseball Canada and Greg. If I was never challenged when I was 15, 16, 17, I wouldn't have developed the attitude on the mound that I can take pride in today. Everything I learned in my two years on the Junior National Team has helped me move quickly and be able to compete every single day. It's truly invaluable."
Though the national organization helped get Soroka ready for the next level of baseball, there was nothing that could quite prepare him for how he would feel when he made his Major League debut, taking on the Mets at Citi Field on May 1.
"It was surreal," Soroka said. "I said to my dad that, at times, I was doing everything, but I didn't feel like I was. I felt like I was playing a video game or something. I didn't feel like I was in my own body. It's such a surreal experience that you don't really know how to process it. It's a bit crazy."
The experience was similar for Soroka's father, sitting in the stands for his son's six innings of one-run, five-srikeout baseball that allowed him to earn his first big league win.
"It was a different game, definitely," Gary said. "Especially because I was just concentrating on him. I didn't notice what was going on around me. I really didn't know until he was out of the game. It was just weird. It was a surreal experience. I don't know how to explain it, but it was fun."
In the five starts Soroka got under his belt before being sidelined for the remainder of the season with a right shoulder injury, he quickly managed to impress some of the best.
"He pitches well beyond his years, acts well beyond his years, and he attacks the zone," Freddie Freeman said. "You would never know that he's 21 years old, the way he's out there on the mound and how he carries himself. He's a special talent."
Though a return for Soroka this season is unlikely, he has been excited by the success of his squad, and he can't wait for what else is coming.
"A lot of people on the outside are very surprised this year, but a lot of us here knew that it was always a possibility," Soroka said. "Coming into Spring Training, you could tell there were a lot of guys battling for spots, and that also meant that there were a lot of guys at stepping stones in their careers. And Freddie's been here for so long and he's been good for so long, it's awesome to finally start coming out on top again, and that's the attitude in here.
"Guys come in ready to play every single day and guys take the ball one after the other, trying to one-up each other. The combination we have of guys who know what it's like to be here for so long, and who know the ups and downs, seeing them and following them in that way, and with the energy that some of the younger guys bring, like [Ronald] Acuna and [Ozzie] Albies, having fun every single day. Guys are playing with everything they've got."
Alexis Brudnicki is a contributor to MLB.com.