Mike Soroka had an idea he might jump straight from Class A Rome to Double-A Mississippi.
He'd been assigned to the M-Braves at the start of spring to be tested before the seemingly inevitable switch to Class A Advanced. The first round of moves came about a month before the Braves broke camp, but Soroka and fellow 19-year-old Kolby Allard -- the Braves' top two pitching prospects -- weren't among them. The pair started considering the idea that the Southern League was a possibility while trying to justify such a decision with their performance on the backfields. Just before their season assignments were formally announced, Soroka and Allard were told by a group headed by director of pitching Dom Chiti that the organization thought highly enough of the duo to start them at Double-A.
"I think Kolby hid [his enthusiasm] a little better than I did," Soroka laughed. "I was definitely very excited to get this opportunity so early in my career. We both kind of proved that the mental game can mean as much as the physical one, because I think we're both strong in that part of the game. Talking to Dom and [director of player development] Dave Trembley, they had full confidence in us, and that was great to hear."
If Soroka knew how well he'd pitch in his Double-A debut, perhaps he would've been even more excited.
MLB.com's No. 75 overall prospect scattered two hits, struck out seven and did not walk a batter over five scoreless innings Monday in Mississippi's 7-4 win over Jacksonville at Trustmark Park.
"I think it went well, really well," said Soroka, who owned a 3.02 ERA with 125 strikeouts in 143 innings last season for Rome. "I got a couple heads-up from Kolby and the other guys how to go after some of these guys. There were a little jitters, but I thought I controlled them well. It's the first start of the season, and those happen. But it's like we've been saying -- it's another level, but it's still baseball. Good pitchers throwing good pitches are going to do well anywhere."
The nerves were evident at the outset but dealt with quickly by the Calgary native. Soroka's first two pitches to Jumbo Shrimp leadoff hitter John Norwood were called balls, but the right-hander rebounded to fan the right-handed hitter. He struck out the next batter, Austin Dean, on three pitches and ended up with five punchouts through his first three frames, including fanning the side in the third inning.
The only two hits Soroka allowed in Monday's matinee were singles -- one by Brian Anderson in the first and another by Chris Mazza in the third. Two more Jacksonville hitters reached on throwing errors by Reed Harper during Soroka's time on the mound, but neither advanced past second base. He exited after five frames, having thrown 80 pitches, 53 of which went for strikes.
Video: M-Braves' Soroka catches Dean looking
It may be just one start, but the 2015 first-rounder has started to identify how the Southern League is going to different than his time in the South Atlantic League.
"Obviously, the strike zone is smaller," he said. "There were more than a few times when I hit my spot, but it got called a ball because I missed the zone. I think from a hitting standpoint, they get set on one pitch here. They weren't swinging at, say, a 0-0 curveball in the dirt. They can recognize pitches a little better. I don't want to say that makes anything easier, but it forced me to focus and hone in on pitch selection in terms of avoiding that one pitch, and that helped today."
When it comes to pitches from which to pick, there are few teenage hurlers in the Minors with an arsenal like Soroka's. His sinking fastball earned a 60 grade on the 20-80 scouting scale from MLB.com this offseason, while his curve and changeup each received above-average 55s. He showed he wasn't afraid to go with anything in that mix in any count Monday, including a third-inning at-bat against Dean when he came back from a 3-0 count to get the second baseman looking on a 3-2 breaking ball that dropped into the zone.
"My changeup will be a big pitch for me this year," he said. "I didn't have it for a couple starts last year, but I could get by with my sinker and slider. Now, I need to show all three and both [my four-seam and two-seam] fastballs. But first, I think my changeup and slider need to be there if I'm going to be successful at all in Double-A. Today, they were, and that's all I can ask for."
Soroka's stellar start was just the latest for an M-Braves rotation that has lived up to its billing so far. Allard, the Braves' No. 3 prospect, allowed two runs and struck out five in five innings during his Double-A debut Saturday, and No. 15 prospect Patrick Weigel fanned seven over five scoreless innings Friday. Matt Withrow, the only Mississippi starter not ranked among the Braves' top 30 prospects, took a perfect game into the ninth Sunday. (No. 8 prospect Max Fried was the only M-Braves hurler not to thrive in his opening start, but he was lifted early with a back injury that is not believed to be serious.)
In many ways, this Mississippi rotation could echo the 2016 one in Rome that eventually won a South Atlantic League championship. In a roundtable Q&A with MiLB.com this spring, Braves prospect Touki Toussaint talked about how the 2016 staff in Rome would try to "one-up each other every night." Soroka wasn't thinking about that so much Monday.
"It was more about following suit," he said. "It's contagious watching those guys, but I wasn't thinking about what happens if I don't do well after they did. I don't think about the negatives beforehand. All the outcomes that are in my head are positive before I go out there, and seeing them do well helps with that."
After all the hubbub his advanced assignment caused just before Opening Day, Soroka added that he's happy the first one is out of the way, and he's excited for what can come next at Double-A.
"I have full confidence now," he said. "You hear all these things about Double-A hitters, and it's true that they're much more developed. But getting out there, getting those first outs and that first inning under my belt, it's a lot like every other game. Now, it's about going into the next one and, like I said before, just following suit with what everyone else does."
First baseman Carlos Franco went 3-for-4 with a homer, a double and team-high five RBIs to power the Mississippi offense. No. 9 Braves prospect Travis Demeritte smacked his first Double-A home run for his only hit of the day.