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Soroka impresses in debut but Braves fall again

Right-hander K's 6 in first 2019 start, could add stability to bullpen
@mlbbowman
April 18, 2019

ATLANTA -- At some point over the next few days and weeks, the Braves will attempt to fix a bullpen which crumbled near the end of a 2-5 homestand that concluded with Thursday afternoon’s 4-1 loss to the D-backs. But regardless of what transpires, the value of the bullpen will

ATLANTA -- At some point over the next few days and weeks, the Braves will attempt to fix a bullpen which crumbled near the end of a 2-5 homestand that concluded with Thursday afternoon’s 4-1 loss to the D-backs.

But regardless of what transpires, the value of the bullpen will be influenced by the stabilization of a rotation that can now fortunately count a healthy Mike Soroka as an option. The highly-regarded prospect provided five solid innings in his season debut, then watched the D-backs claim the series finale courtesy of Christian Walker’s two-run, seventh-inning homer off Chad Sobotka.

“This business and this game can change with the wind,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “You could be going so good and then you look up and you’re playing like we are right now. We were playing so good. Then, when you hit a rough spell, you’ve just got to come out tomorrow and right the ship.”

The Braves had won nine of their past 12 before their bullpen issued 10 walks, surrendered 14 hits and allowed 11 runs (nine earned) over 10 innings against the D-backs. Snitker’s bunch can certainly recover from a mid-April three-game sweep. But changes need to be made within the injury-depleted relief corps which can’t currently count Sobotka as a reliable option.

Sobotka couldn’t find the strike zone as he fueled the four-run rally Arizona created in Tuesday’s series-opening win. But each of the three hits surrendered Thursday came against pitches thrown when ahead in the count. Walker drilled an elevated 0-1 fastball after Adam Jones singled against an elevated 0-2 fastball. Nick Ahmed produced a RBI double against a 1-2 slider that found the middle of the strike zone.

“His stuff is there,” Snitker said. “Like with a lot of these young guys, it’s as much mental as it is anything.”

While the Braves may continue to experience growing pains with Sobotka, A.J. Minter and some of their other young pitchers, there does not seem to be reason to be worry about the genuine confidence and pitching I.Q. of Soroka, who provided a sound answer when asked if he had expected to throw a personal-high 30 sliders during Thursday’s 84-pitch outing.

“I think [Wednesday’s Braves starter Kevin Gausman] threw only one breaking ball last night,” Soroka said. “So, kind of being able to give them a different look from a right-hander was pretty important. I was able to throw it for strikes and balls when I needed. I got burned once or twice in a two-strike count. But for the most part, they were down when they needed to be and down in the zone when they needed to be.”

This is not your typical 21-year-old pitcher. MLB Pipeline ranks him as the Braves’ top prospect and baseball’s No. 23 prospect for good reason. The primary concerns over much of the past year centered around his right shoulder, which limited him to just five Major League starts after he debuted last May. The inflammation was blamed on a muscular issue and the discomfort that shut him down for the early portion of this year’s Spring Training was blamed on a muscular strain suffered while lifting weights.

“We know what we need to do to keep [the inflammation] out of there this time and why it happened the first time,” Soroka said. “It wasn’t so much a throwing issue as it was just my body was working. So, we figured that out and hopefully we know how to keep it that way.”

Soroka surrendered a pair of singles that led to a first-inning run and then began to cruise with the help of his two fastballs, the slider and his changeup, which was reliable minus the two that got away and hit a batter. Wilmer Flores was hit by one of those changeups to fuel a bases-loaded chance for the D-backs in the fifth, but the Braves’ young hurler escaped the threat by striking out Walker and inducing a Ketel Marte groundout.

“I think the most encouraging part was being able to stay calm and dig deep when it mattered,” Soroka said. “That fifth inning there, that’s where you can make a difference and give your team a chance to win the game.”

Soroka was promoted from Triple-A Gwinnett to make this start once the Braves altered their rotation to account for Mike Foltynewicz needing to make another rehab start this weekend. Foltynewicz’s progress will serve as one of the factors that determines whether Soroka sticks around to make another start.

But regardless of what happens, simply knowing Soroka is healthy and capable of being effective at the big league level could lead the Braves to use one of their top young starting pitchers to provide some much-needed stability within the bullpen.

“I didn’t have the inkling there was anything wrong with that kid or that he had missed the time he did last year,” Snitker said. “He has a feel for the strike zone. He always has. He looked great to me.”

Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.