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Hard Work Does Pay Off: Michael Soroka’s Journey Back to the Major Leagues

Chronicling Soroka’s long road back to the majors.

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Atlanta Braves v Oakland Athletics Photo by Kevin D. Liles/Atlanta Braves/Getty Images

It was as a young teenager that, Canadian-born, Michael Soroka gave up hockey to pursue his dream as a Major League Baseball player. That decision put him on a road towards a destination that many kids dream of, but very few ever realize.

In a 2015 interview with Battery Power, Soroka shared his reason for choosing baseball, “I made that decision because I just knew that I enjoyed practicing baseball more. I enjoyed working at it and it was never, ever a hassle to get to the diamond and it was always the best part of my day going to baseball practice or a game. ... After that, that’s when we realized how many kids off that junior national team went to big Division I’s and as well as in the draft. After that, my sights were set pretty high.”

At the time nobody knew how badly he wanted to be a Major League Pitcher, but over the next 8 years everyone found out exactly what Soroka was willing to do to realize his dream.

Drafted 28th overall, in the 2015 MLB Draft, by the Atlanta Braves, Soroka quickly showed the organization all the promise and ability they saw in him. In less than 3 years, Soroka had traversed the Braves Minor League system, from Rookie Ball to Triple-A, in dominating fashion. Through 83 appearances, Soroka had a 3.11 ERA, 396 K’s, and just 96 BB’s. Soroka was on the precipice of realizing his dream and on May 1st, 2018, that dream became a reality.

At the time, Soroka said, “It’s pretty amazing when you think about it. But I’ve thought about it for so long now that I really felt right at home there.”

Soroka had made it to the Major Leagues, but, at the time, he didn’t fully grasp how hard it would be to stay there.

Soroka dazzled in his debut, pitching 6.0 innings, giving up 6 hits and 1 run, while striking out 5 and walking zero. The Braves won the game 3-2 and Soroka had his first career win.

All was right in the world for the Braves, sporting the 3 youngest players in the majors, at the time, (Acuna, Albies, and Soroka), but less than 2 months later, Soroka, ran into the first of many setbacks.

May 12th, 2018 – Shoulder inflammation

Soroka went into the 3rd start of his career, against the Marlins, and going into the 5th everything seemed to be fine. It was during this inning that Soroka felt some discomfort but tried to battle through. Unfortunately, he didn’t make it out of the 5th and the team later diagnosed him with shoulder inflammation. Which led to a 10-day DL stint, that turned into nearly a month.

A month later, Soroka returned in dominant fashion, going 6.1 innings of 1-hit ball, once again, against the Mets. Everything seemed to be going right for Soroka, but fate is cruel, and it had something for Soroka going into his next start against the Blue Jays.

Going into the game, by his account afterwards, Soroka was ready. He told reporters, “It felt fine, it felt great in the bullpen. I thought everything was status-quo.”

Once Soroka got in the game, though, things weren’t as fine as he had thought, “I got out there and things weren’t quite jumping as they usually are. That wasn’t really a worry. Sometimes you just have those days. ... And then it got to the point where something’s not right.”

Soroka didn’t make it out of the 5th and this time the Braves went the cautious route, shutting Soroka down for the rest of the season.

Confident, General Manager, Alex Anthopoulos, felt it was only a minor setback for Soroka, saying, “[Soroka’s arm] just needs to rest,” Anthopoulos said. “It was very similar to last time, and now, just the fact that it’s been a recurrence, we just felt like we needed to give it more time to heal and more time to rest.”

With the 2018 season done for Soroka it was about strengthening his shoulder and going into the 2019 season Soroka had a firm grasp on what had caused the injury, sharing, “It was about being able to move my scapula properly,” Soroka said. “I had some muscles that were overactive and some others that were underactive. It wasn’t so much about arm action or anything like that. It was more of an issue of just being able to move properly.”

Soroka also spoke with Battery Power about his return saying, “Everything feels great. It almost feels better than it did before because I don’t think I have ever felt this loose in those spots in my lifetime. ... My struggles are going to be staying on top of soft tissue work and making sure those knots stay out of there. A lot of the little muscles in my shoulder are big for me and for other guys. ... You have to know who you are and now, knowing that, it gives me a much better chance at staying healthy in the future.”

Jan. 2019 – Re-injures Right Shoulder

Soroka, determined to make sure his shoulder would be ready for a full season went about strengthening these “little muscles” and in doing so reaggravated things. It was a minor setback for Soroka, but something that shut him down briefly, with Braves Manager, Brian Snitker remarking:

“I think he’ll be fine. ... It’s just some tendinitis that probably barked up. When that happens, it’s best to shut them down a little bit and keep doing the exercises. Then, we’ll get him going. ... He’s going to be behind everybody else, but with that being said, I think he should be good to go by the time Spring Training ends and then be able to get back in the swing of things.”

Resilient, Soroka came back to pitch 3 games for the Braves during Spring Training and that was enough for the team to name him Opening Day starter, and at 20-years old the youngest in franchise history.

Soroka shared his thoughts on getting the nod, “It’s pretty cool,” Soroka said. “It’s a good feeling. ... It’s something you dream about as a kid.”

With his shoulder injury behind him, Soroka delivered in 2019, and he was every bit the Ace the Braves had hoped he would be. Soroka finished the season 19-4 with a 2.68 ERA, 174.2 IP, 142 K’s, and 41 BB’s, but more importantly, he didn’t miss a single start. To add to his stellar season, Soroka finished 2nd in rookie of the year, 6th in Cy Young voting, and made his first All-Star game.

Soroka credited his success with taking his health seriously, saying, “[Staying healthy] is what I’m most proud of this year,” Soroka said. “I’ve been taking my health for granted for a lot of years in the Minor Leagues. I was just being naïve, thinking because I worked out and ate well, I’d never get hurt. Last year was the toughest summer I’ve ever had because it challenges you as a person. I was able to turn it around to one of the best things that ever happened to me because I learned about what it takes to stay healthy for a whole season.”

With his shoulder woes behind him, Soroka was ready to build upon the success of his first full season as a Major League pitcher, but little did he know, his body was about to betray him.

Aug. 3rd 2020 – Torn Right Achilles

It certainly wasn’t a delay to the 2020 season that put Soroka in jeopardy. Rather, it was a mundane play that did him in.

Things picked up right where 2019 left off for Soroka, starting the year 1-1, with a 1.59 ERA, and going into his third start, against the Mets, everything was normal. In the 3rd inning, Soroka gave up a weak grounder to 1st baseman, Freddie Freeman, and as he broke for first (A routine play, made hundreds of times during the season), Soroka pushed off his right leg and collapsed to the ground. According to Snitker, Soroka knew exactly what happened, telling reporters, “He felt like, you know, it was (an Achillies injury).”

Soroka had dedicated himself to the pursuit of a dream and in that moment, it was ripped away from him. There were no sugar-coating things, Soroka’s journey just went off course, and he was going to need to go through months of therapy to get back on the mound. With the surgery successful, Soroka began the arduous journey.

By the start of the 2021 season, Soroka was ready to go, saying, “I feel amazing. ... Obviously, my response to that is I’ll tell you I could be ready to compete right now.” Yet, Soroka knew he needed time to get to 100%: “It’s not where exactly I need to be,” he said. “I need to get a little strength so I can come out of the gate hot.”

Soroka could see the road ahead, and while it wasn’t as smooth as it was before, he believed he had made his way through the toughest part and was wiser for it, saying, “[Rehabilitation was one] of the cooler and harder things I’ve ever had to do. ... Not to be [with the team] was pretty hard. When you’re sitting on a couch at home, not throwing on your feet yet, it’s a tough moment and it’s not something I’m going to forget anytime soon.”

Soroka was ready to go and everyone in Braves country was optimistic. Soroka started the year pitching at the Braves alternate training site, but something didn’t quite feel right.

May 2021 – Exploratory Achilles Surgery

Soroka explained what had happened, saying, “We just noticed that everything started to seem to get harder, with as far as how I was going to push off the mound, how I was running. Everything just seemed like a bit of a battle. ... What really happened, is my body rejected the internal sutures. ... When you hear that, it doesn’t quite make sense.”

Even with this setback, the Braves, and Soroka, were confident that he could pitch during the 2021 season and there was no reason they shouldn’t have been. Despite the rejection of the sutures, Soroka’s Achilles was 100%, or so everyone thought.

June. 2021 – Re-torn Right Achilles

While walking to Truist park, Soroka felt a familiar pop. A sign to Soroka that he wasn’t past the last of the setbacks on his road back. An MRI had revealed a re-tear of the same right Achilles tendon.

Snitker shared with reporters Soroka’s outlook, “The day it happened, it really hit him, punched him in the gut. ... You know, he’s such a kid that keeps everything in perspective and [puts] a good spin on things, a mature outlook. He told me it’s another new journey, and he’s ready to get started on it.”

Braves pitcher, Ian Anderson, added, “Knowing Mike, he’s got a good attitude about it and hopefully we can see the best of him through all this.”

Austin Riley shared Anderson’s sentiments, “You hate it for a guy like him. ... But I think if it had to happen to anybody, his frame of mind, his mindset, his work ethic – I think he can for sure come back and still dominate the game.”

A freak re-injury and a minimum of 12 months of rehab, and Soroka was prepared for it.

One year later and Soroka was ready to come back. Despite the setback, Soroka was positive, saying, “I’m happy. ... To think that I tore my Achilles twice in basically a year’s span, and it really still wasn’t one of the toughest years of my kind of one of the things where there’s a silver lining to everything.”

Nobody knew what Soroka would be able to do, but he was confident and happy to be back. Soroka spoke with 755 Is Real, and talked a little more about his journey and his excitement over getting back on the mound:

I’m close. We’re just finishing up some last things to be an athlete again. I think that’s one thing we make sure we hammer down this time around. .... It took me awhile to settle into that. ...Settle into taking it two weeks at a time. ... It’s paid off. ... I’m starting to feel like the athlete I was.” When asked on how he has been able to stay positive throughout his journey, Soroka responded, “If this had been my first injury, it wouldn’t have been like this. ... But I think it comes down to not having a choice. If you want it, you don’t have a choice but to put one foot in front of the other every day. ... And I feel like that’s the best time to bury yourself in your work.”

Soroka continued, “When I re-ruptured... that was a moment I was the most scared in my entire life. ... but, honestly, the best conversation I had was with Alex Anthopoulos. ... He laid it out for me. ... This is reality. ... You know a lot of other people wouldn’t come through this, but I believe in you... I believe you’re going to be the same pitcher you were previously. ... And that was really comforting to hear.”

Most people would have been destroyed by what happened, but Soroka clearly understood the journey he was on and pushed forward; never giving in. He took his situation for what it was; if he wanted to pitch again, he had to put in the work. In life, it all comes down to how badly you want it, and, despite his cool demeanor, Soroka wanted it badly, so he put in the work.

That work paid off and on Aug. 16th Soroka made his first rehab start, with the Single-A Rome Braves. It was a great start, going 4 Innings, giving up 1 hit, with 8 K’s, and 0 BB’s. After his start Soroka told reporters, “I felt like I could have got outs in the big leagues tonight.”

Mike Soroka was back, but it wasn’t without a sense of drama and more concern. Soroka was sent to the AAA Gwinnett Stripers and after 4 starts, with varying levels of success, Soroka was shut down with elbow soreness, but with, thankfully, no structural damage.

With his season done, Soroka had 2023 to look forward to and he knew there was still more work to be done.

May 2023 – The comeback

There was optimism in Braves country that Soroka could challenge for a spot in the rotation, but Soroka was just happy to be healthy, telling reporters, “It’s nice just to be able to kind of take off, not even have to warm up, go for a couple of sprints, go for a couple of jogs to warm up to get my day going,” Soroka said. “Jumping, all that kind of stuff. It’s kind of out of my mind now and that’s exciting. That’s when things can loosen up. ... I think this year is going to be really big for taking a deep breath, trusting thework that I’ve done, trusting who I am and relaxing and just playing. So that’s what I mean when I say athletes, just let it happen. That’s when I’m at my best. I’m excited to feel that again.”

On March 22nd, Soroka made his Spring Training debut. He was on a strict pitch count, but what mattered most was that Soroka was back. For many, it was reason to celebrate, but Soroka knew there was still more work to be done:

“I’ve said it before, [I’m] not making this out to be some big story for me, like there’s this big finish line, big end,” Soroka said. “It’s a continual process. Talking to some guys like Charlie Morton, who’s had comebacks in his career, I think the more you try to glorify your comeback, the tougher and more pressure you put on yourself.”

Soroka hoped to earn a spot in the rotation, but understood it wasn’t going to happen by Opening Day, ”There are some things I need to work on still,” Soroka said. “It was nice to get out there and compete again and be considered part of the mix. That’s a good start. There’s a fine line between celebrating and being proud of yourself and all the work that you’ve put in. I don’t think this is quite a celebratory thing yet, but that’ll come.”

Not long after, Soroka was optioned to Triple-A, and got to work. Over the next 7 weeks, Soroka made 8 starts and pitched well. The ERA may not have shown it, due to one bad outing, but Soroka was getting better. He was healthy, he was pitching, and the Braves noticed.

News started circulating that the Braves could call up Soroka to pitch, which was all but confirmed by Anthopoulos, saying on MLB Radio, “Soroka’s doing really well. He’s really the next guy up at this point.”

A day later and it was confirmed, Soroka would be pitching in the Major Leagues for the first time in nearly 3 years.

For those 3 years, Soroka worked tirelessly to make his way back. Despite a plethora of setbacks, one devastatingly so, Soroka put his head down and didn’t give up. Many questioned whether Soroka would ever pitch again in the majors, after all, coming back from two Achilles’ ruptures was unheard of, but Soroka had done it.

It wasn’t exactly the return that Soroka had hoped for, giving up 4 runs in 6 innings, but the moment wasn’t lost on him. When asked what kept him motivated throughout, Soroka shared, “A day like today, and the people that believed in me. ... I’ve always said I was going to be back here for the people that believed in me, not the ones that said I couldn’t. ... There’s been some people in my corner for a long, long time that have stuck by me. It’s a day for them, too.”

Yet, when asked, Soroka didn’t want to make a big deal out of the moment, “We can think of it as this big story, and I just prefer to think of it as a bump in the road.”

Despite the setbacks and the amount of mental, emotional, and physical effort it took to come back, Soroka didn’t succumb to it. He pushed and willed himself back. It’s a much bigger deal than Soroka would like to admit and maybe one day he’ll be able to look back and recognize that the “bump in the road” was more like a giant sink hole that he was able to get over to once again pitch in the Major Leagues.

Until that day comes, Soroka will continue to work.

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