“My first at bat I was really nervous. I was saying, ‘Oh my God.’ Just try to breathe down and come do my job.”
It happened so quickly, you could’ve so easily missed it. Fans were still filing in to Nationals Park as the home team came to the plate in the bottom of the second. A leadoff single followed by a ringing double into the left-field corner set the stage for the improbable, the impossible, the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up moment every fan in the ballpark was waiting for.
Rewind back 28 days.
Nineteen-year-old outfielder Juan Soto sported a .373 batting average with five home runs and 24 RBIs for Low-A Hagerstown after the first 16 games of the young season.
The Washington Nationals promoted their No. 2 overall prospect to High-A Potomac that day because he was clearly just too good for the South Atlantic League.
After another 17 days, the Nats promoted the Dominican phenom yet again, this time to Double-A Harrisburg. Soto was hitting .371 with seven homers and 18 RBIs across 15 contests and was clearly just too good for the Carolina League.
Enter May 20. Soto owns a .323/.400/.581 slash line with a pair of long balls and 10 runs batted in with the Senators. Washington makes the call to bring him up to the big leagues — because Howie Kendrick ruptured his Achilles tendon and Soto was clearly just too good for the Eastern League.
Soto made his MLB debut Sunday night, pinch hitting in the eighth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers and striking out in four pitches. But that was OK, his parents didn’t make it in time for that game anyway. The first player born in 1998 to reach the majors earned the starting nod from his manager Monday, penciled in at left field and batting sixth.
An announced crowd of 27,890 cheered as Soto’s name was read over the loudspeakers.
Soto, a lefty, walked right up to the batter’s box from the Nationals’ dugout on the first base side. The crowd was still chanting “Let’s Go Nats,” hardly getting settled before San Diego Padres starter Robbie Erlin nodded at catcher A.J. Ellis’ sign.
And then it happened.
A 90-mph fastball came sliding across the strike zone, crossing the plate just over the outer half. Soto didn’t need to think twice. He waited on the ball ever so slightly, then absolutely crushed it. The ball went flying — opposite field with no doubt about it. Fans were on their feet before it could even slam against the LED board above the visitor’s bullpen, a magnificent 422 feet away.
“I just, was like, ‘Wow, 3-0 [lead]. Alright. Nice going kid,’” Nats manager Davey Martinez said after the game. “He’s got unbelievable poise, and he’s really, really, really a student of the game, he really is and he pays attention. I sat there and watched him, he sat next to me, he just watched everything going on, it’s pretty good to see.”
The youngest player in baseball sent Nationals fans into a frenzy, becoming the first teenager to leave the yard since another familiar face: Bryce Harper. He received a well-deserved curtain call, just as Harper did after his first career home run.
“I didn’t think it was going to go out of the park,” Soto said. “I just run hard the same when I do it in the minor leagues, and then I heard the noise and I knew it was gone.”
It’s only one game, even though Soto did go on to add a single later in the sixth and earn himself a 2-for-4 day. In fact, the home run was only the beginning of a slew of offense by the Nats’ bats in their eventual 10-2 win over San Diego.
But for Soto, the Nationals and their fans, there’s a lot of optimism it’s the beginning of so much more.
“It’s exciting, it’s uplifting,” Martinez said. “Here’s a young man getting a chance to play in the big leagues at an early age. It pumps everybody up ... to watch him do what he did today.”