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Spring training wraps up: Soroka returns to mound for Braves

By Paul Newberry

AP Sports Writer

On the final day of spring training, Mike Soroka surrendered a homer while working two innings for the Atlanta Braves in his 2021 debut Tuesday, a big step in the former All-Star’s comeback from a torn Achilles tendon.

Soroka got into the Braves’ final game of spring training at Fort Myers, Florida, taking over in the bottom of the sixth with Atlanta leading the Boston Red Sox 4-2.

The 23-year-old right-hander made it through his first inning of work without giving up a run. The Red Sox put two aboard with a hit and a walk, but Soroka recorded a pair of strikeouts,  including Chris Herrmann swinging to end the threat.

Jarren Duran led off the next inning by launching a towering drive over the right-field wall to bring the Red Sox to 5-3. Soroka issued another walk and again had to deal with two runners aboard after Johan Camargo’s throwing error.

But Soroka closed out the seven-inning game by getting Jeter Downs to hit into a double play, earning a save.

“It felt good. It felt really good,” Soroka said “It was kind of nice to get into trouble a little bit. I had to keep making pitches like I would during the season.”

While Soroka had pitched in simulated games at the Braves’ spring training complex, this was his first appearance against an opposing team since his injury on Aug. 3, 2020.

Soroka will begin the season on the injured list and continue to build up his arm strength at the alternate-training site in suburban Atlanta. The team is hopeful that he may be ready to rejoin the rotation before the end of April.

“It was a perfect way to end a really good spring training on a positive note,” manager Brian Snitker said.  “You could tell he hasn’t pitched in a while. There were flashes that were really good. But it was just good to get him out there. To pitch against somebody else is important.”

Soroka was the Braves’ opening day starter a season ago, coming off a brilliant rookie season in which he went 13-4 with a 2.68 ERA, was selected for the All-Star Game and finished sixth in the NL Cy Young Award balloting.

But he lasted only three starts after the pandemic-shortened 2020 season finally got underway.

Pitching against the New York Mets, Soroka collapsed to the ground after breaking toward first to cover the bag on a grounder to the right side. He let out a scream and knew right away that it was a devastating injury.

This time around, Soroka darted off the mound on a couple of plays Tuesday without any concern. He credited the work he’s done during his rehab for building up his confidence.

“Once you do it in a game, you’ve done it so many times already it is not a thought,” he said.

Without Soroka last season, Max Fried emerged as the Braves’ ace, Ian Anderson had a stellar rookie campaign, and the team won its third straight NL East title.

Even with a lack of depth in the rotation, Atlanta came within one win of reaching the World Series, losing to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a seven-game NL Championship Series after squandering a 3-1 lead.

Soroka is eager to be part of a rotation that added veteran free agents Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly, who will join Fried and Anderson in a four-man group to start the season. Fried got the nod for Thursday’s opener at Philadelphia.

Bryse Anderson will likely join the team in a couple of weeks when a fifth starter is needed. But it shouldn’t be long before Soroka is part of the mix.

“It is exciting,” he said. “It could be one of those rotations where five guys are just trading hands, competing with each other. That’s where it’s the most fun.”

After being scratched the day before because of tightness in his right calf, SS Dansby Swanson returned to the lineup. He will be ready to go on opening day.

WELCOME RELIEF

Braves reliever Will Smith is auctioning off gear autographed by his teammates to raise money for relief efforts in his storm-ravaged home county south of Atlanta.

Smith is a native of Newnan, about 40 miles from Atlanta and part of Coweta County. Last week, the area was hit by a massive tornado that caused extensive damage as a deadly storm system moved across the Southeast.

“We’ve never had a tornado like this before,” Smith said. “We’ve obviously had some bad weather in the springtime, some crazy storms that roll through, trees falling down here and there. But I never remember a tornado touching down and tearing up the county like this one did.”

Among the items that are part of the auction: a Braves jersey signed by the entire team, a bat autographed by NL MVP Freddie Freeman, hats signed by each of the team’s position groups and baseballs autographed by the team’s top players, including Ronald Acuña Jr., Marcell Ozuna, Ozzie Albies and Ian Anderson.

“I really do appreciate the guys helping me out by signing some stuff to auction off to raise some money for these people back home,” Smith said from spring training Florida. “We’re just trying to get people back on their feet who got destroyed and lost their homes and stuff.”

All money raised through the auction will be matched by Smith and the Atlanta Braves Foundation.

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