By Mark Bowman – MLB.com
It will be hard for Mike Soroka to top what he did last year when he drew National League Cy Young Award consideration and finished second in NL Rookie of the Year balloting.
But the 22-year-old hurler delivered an exciting message for Braves fans after throwing four innings in an intrasquad game at Truist Park on Monday night.
“To be honest, my stuff has never felt better,” said Soroka, who is expected to draw his first Opening Day start on July 24, when he’ll likely match up against Mets ace Jacob deGrom at Citi Field.
Soroka certainly has the potential to continue improving this early in his career. It will be a challenge for him to top last year’s 2.68 ERA, which ranked third in the NL. But if he starts this season like he did 2019, he will again be a strong candidate for postseason awards.
With this year’s schedule reduced to 60 games, most starting pitchers will not make more than 12 starts. So there will be a desire to get off to a hot start, like Soroka did last year, when he posted a 1.38 ERA through 10 starts and a 2.12 ERA through 12.
But Soroka knows dwelling on last year’s success could prove detrimental.
“Going back to that time last year, I didn’t know if I was going to make my next start, in the sense we were all kind of battling for that spot,” Soroka said. “So, I think it will be important to put myself back in those shoes and understand the only game that matters is the first one, and then move on from there.”
Ozzie Albies and Marcell Ozuna both recorded a pair of singles to account for the four hits Soroka allowed. Incidentally, Ozuna recorded both of the hits Soroka allowed while limiting the Cardinals to one run over seven innings in Game 3 of their NL Division Series last year.
‘A slow process’ for Hamels
When triceps tendinitis prevented Cole Hamels from throwing a side session on Saturday, he told the Braves it was a minor issue he’s often experienced during Spring Training. His explanation seemed to hold true, based on what he said to manager Brian Snitker on Monday.
“He’s feeling better,” Snitker said. “Everything is progressing. It’s just going to be kind of a slow process for him.”
This has been an extremely slow process for Hamels, who did not throw a pitch in Spring Training because of left shoulder inflammation. It likely would have sidelined him through May had the season started on time. When the Braves opened Summer Camp on July 3, Hamels was not ready to throw batting practice like the other top rotation candidates. So he was already behind schedule before this bout with tendinitis.
Still, Snitker was not ready to rule out the possibility of making the Opening Day roster. With active rosters consisting of 30 players through the season’s first two weeks, the Braves could choose to carry the 36-year-old lefty even if he were ready to throw only two or three innings as part of the piggyback system they plan to use.
With Opening Day a little more than a week away, the Braves are preparing for the possibility of beginning the season without MVP candidate Freddie Freeman and offseason acquisition Will Smith.
For now, Snitker is choosing not to provide any details about Freeman, Smith, Touki Toussaint and Pete Kozma, who all tested positive for COVID-19 when Summer Camp opened.
Freeman has felt good for more than a week. But like Smith, Toussaint and Kozma, he will not be permitted to rejoin the team until he tests negative twice within a span of more than 24 hours.
“They’re all still in that protocol,” Snitker said. “Really, it’s beyond how they feel and all that. Until they’re cleared, they’re away. When they get here, I’ll know they passed all the protocols. But until then, there’s not a whole lot to say about it.”
Top prospect Cristian Pache gave the Braves a scare when he jammed his right ankle while attempting to steal second base on Monday. He remained on the ground in pain, and the medical staff called for a cart on the field.
Pache rose to his feet, walked toward the cart, then made his way toward the clubhouse under his own power. Snitker said the young center fielder will likely be available to play in Tuesday’s intrasquad game.
“It looked to me when he walked off, he probably could have kept going,” Snitker said. “It looked to me like it was just something that scared him a little bit.”
Pache doubled off the top of the left-field wall against Josh Tomlin in the second inning. It brought back memories of 2018, when Pache surprisingly hit two homers off Sean Newcomb while playing against the big leaguers in a spring exhibition game.
Before that, Pache had never homered in his professional career. The 21-year-old outfielder now ranks as baseball’s No. 13 prospect, per MLB Pipeline.
Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001.