Braves’ Michael Soroka is closer to much-anticipated return, and so many are excited

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ATLANTA — It’s been nearly 34 months since Michael Soroka pitched in a major-league game, and when he makes his return, it will be one of the most anticipated moments in recent Braves history. It’s sure to draw a resounding standing ovation when he’s introduced if it happens at Truist Park, and possibly even if it’s on the road.

The injury ordeal that Soroka has been through, and the toughness and positivity he’s demonstrated through two ruptures of his right Achilles, three surgeries and countless hours of rehab, is known around baseball, not just in Braves Country. And after significant progress in his past two starts at Triple-A Gwinnett, there seems a real chance that his return could happen soon.

After giving up two hits, one run and one walk with five strikeouts in 83 pitches over 4 2/3 innings of a May 17 start at Memphis, Soroka on Tuesday limited Durham to two hits, one run and three walks with eight strikeouts in six innings.

“He’s been through heck, but he’s one guy that can get through it and keep going,” said veteran utility player Charlie Culberson, who was a Brave in 2018-2020 during Soroka’s first stint, then returned to the organization this season and was teammates with Soroka at Gwinnett, until Culberson was brought to the majors last week.

“Me and Mike are really close, and it’s just fun to see him on his journey to get back here,” Culberson said. “He’s the best. His drive and his work ethic – you can’t really match that.”

Soroka threw 58 strikes in 96 pitches Tuesday in his eighth start of the season for Gwinnett, and Braves general manager and president of baseball operations Alex Anthopoulos was there to see it.

“One of the things he did was got extended with his pitches,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said, referring to the season-high pitch count. “He needs to be able to come up here and throw at least 100 pitches when he gets here. Covering innings is a big thing. Stuff’s getting better, and it’s just all headed in the right direction, really. I like where he’s (progressed). Leaving him there and getting these additional starts — I think when and if we need him, he’ll be ready.”

The Braves have been piecing together two spots in their rotation with Max Fried and Kyle Wright on the injured list, using rookies Dylan Dodd and Jared Shuster along with bullpen games, including three of the all-reliever outings in a recent nine-game span.

Though Shuster has made big strides in two starts since returning from Triple A, including six innings of one-hit, one-run ball with seven strikeouts Sunday against Seattle, Dodd has a 6.64 ERA and 1.77 WHIP in four MLB starts.

That included seven hits, four runs and two homers allowed by Dodd in five innings of an 8-5 win Thursday night in a home series opener against Philadelphia. After an outstanding debut in an April 4 win at St. Louis, Dodd has given up 25 hits and 14 runs in 16 1/3 innings over his past three starts.

Resurgent slugger Austin Riley drove in three runs with two mammoth homers measured at 459 and 458 feet Thursday, Marcell Ozuna hit his eighth homer of May, and Travis d’Arnaud had a tie-breaking, two-run pinch-hit single in the eighth inning for the Braves.

Though Soroka has a modest 4.33 ERA and 1.330 WHIP at Gwinnett, over his past two starts it’s a 1.69 ERA and .141 opponents’ average, with 13 strikeouts and four walks in 10 2/3 innings. His velocity is nearly the same as in 2019 when he was an All-Star, NL Rookie of the Year runner-up and finished sixth in NL Cy Young balloting after going 13-4 with a 2.68 ERA in 29 starts.

He averaged 92.5 mph with his four-seam fastball and 91.9 mph with his sinker in Tuesday’s game and mixed in 29 sliders and 13 changeups. Though he didn’t get a lot of swings-and-misses — 39 swings, 7 whiffs — Soroka was never a huge strikeout guy, recording 142 strikeouts with 41 walks in 174 2/3 innings in 2019 and 171 strikeouts in 214 career innings in 37 starts.

His strengths are movement, location and an aggressive, fearless approach that results in slews of grounders and soft contact. And he’s getting there now, though the Braves are erring on the side of caution. They want to be sure, or as close as they can be to sure, that once he’s here, he’ll be ready to thrive and stay in the rotation.

“He looked better (May 17),” said Culberson, who was back with Atlanta before Soroka’s even stronger start Tuesday. “His stuff’s good, his confidence is getting there. He’s obviously a very, very bright person. He’s been through a ton — a lot more than a lot of us have gone through, especially injury-wise.”

White Sox third baseman Jake Burger is the only major leaguer to have returned from a twice-torn Achilles tendon to play at the major-league level, and the former top prospect missed three seasons (2018-2020) trying to recover from surgeries and accompanying mental struggles. But he finally made his MLB debut in 2021, and in his first extensive playing time this season, Burger has been a feel-good story in Chicago, with 10 homers and a .920 OPS in 33 games before Thursday.

Burger first spoke to Soroka soon after the pitcher’s initial Achilles tear, and they both used surgeon Robert Anderson and his state-of-the-art clinic in Green Bay, Wis.

“We talked probably once a month for two years,” Burger said of his relationship with Soroka. “There’s not many people who have experienced what we did with tearing the same Achilles twice. We have a mutual respect for what each other are going through. It was good being able to talk with him and say, ‘Hey, this is a normal feeling.’ Whether it’s throwing or running or anything, he understands with what’s going on, he just has to keep grinding through it.”

Asked if he had tried to be a guide for Soroka, Burger said, “100 percent. If I knew that somebody had done it and reached out to me, that would make me feel a lot better throughout my process. Based off of that, I reached out to him. Especially when it happened the second time, I was like, ‘Anything you need.’ Sure enough, he called me a couple of times, talking about the mental grind he had to deal with as well. I was glad I was able to be there for him.”

He’s followed Soroka’s progress this season and knows the pitcher could be close to returning to the majors.

“It’ll fire me up so much, knowing what both of us went through and getting back to what we were before the injury, and even better,” Burger said. “I can’t wait for that day. He’s got the workhorse mentality, and it’s awesome seeing him just back in baseball. I can’t imagine my feelings when he gets back up to the big leagues.”

The Braves stress the importance of the mental makeup of players, and Soroka is figuratively off the charts in terms of character and all of the characteristics they look for in a competitor and teammate. It’s a big reason they continued to give him contracts while he’s rehabbed for nearly three years.

“He was mature before,” Culberson said, “but he’s very thorough in everything he does, and he is grinding and doing his best to pitch well and be back here. I know he’s excited to be pitching better, to be pitching in general. He’s done well here before; he was an All-Star. He knows what to do. He can do it again, absolutely.”

Soroka is closer than ever to returning, and so many past and present teammates are pulling hard for him, along with others around baseball who’ve gotten to know the amiable Canadian or just heard enough about him and his long road back. He’s had an almost incomprehensible degree of bad luck and adversity for a still-young pitcher who was on the cusp of stardom before all this happened.

A former hockey player, Soroka has added 20-25 pounds since his rookie season, and it appears to be all muscle. He’s 6 feet 5 and 245 pounds and cuts quite a commanding presence on the mound.

“He’s in shape, and he takes care of himself,” Culberson said. “And he just wants it. He just wants to show people that he’s back to his previous form and healthy, and can help the team win.”

The Athletic’s James Fegan contributed to this report.

(Photo of Michael Soroka in 2020: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

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