BALTIMORE, MD: Washington Nationals’ skipper Davey Martinez waited until just before the lineup was released to tell outfielder Juan Soto he would lead off in the series finale against Baltimore’s Orioles in Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
“I didn’t want to say nothing to him last night,” Martinez explained to reporters Wednesday afternoon, “... because I didn’t want him to start thinking about things. I just wanted him to go out there and play.
“So I talked to him in the clubhouse earlier and told him, ‘Hey, after the first at bat, it’s just another at bat, so just go out there and play and have fun like you’ve been doing.”
It’s hard not to like the early returns from the 19-year-old, who was 11 for 28 (.393/.485/.607) with three doubles, a home run, five walks, and five Ks in nine games before the finale with the O’s.
“He’s come a long way,” Martinez said of the outfielder, who started the season at Low-A in the Nationals’ system.
“We all know he’s 19, but he plays the game like he’s been around for a while, which is nice. And he gets it.”
Nationals’ GM Mike Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies on Wednesday morning he was confident when they made the decision to call Soto up that he was ready for it.
“I’ve been a farm director for a long, long time,” Rizzo said, “and I know when players are prepared to play in the big leagues, and sometimes you have to just disregard what their chronological age is, and this guy was ready as far as — defensively he was a work in progress, but played well in the outfield in a short time, but at the plate he was a very polished player in the minor leagues.”
Soto put up a .362/.462/.757 line, 10 doubles, four triples, and 14 home runs in his three stops in the Nationals’ minor league system this season, starting at Low-A Hagerstown before moving up to High-A Potomac, and Double-A Harrisburg briefly before Howie Kendrick’s season-ending injury created a need on the major league roster.
“His performance in the minor leagues showed that he could perform at the big league level,” Rizzo said, “and the way he sees pitches and doesn’t expand the strike zone gives him a chance to hit in the big leagues and he’s got the other skills. He’s got balance at the plate, he’s got bat speed, he’s got power, he can run and throw and play defense, and we thought he was ready or else we wouldn’t have brought him up there and he’s going to play because he has to play because he’s that good of a talent and we’re certainly not going to bring him up not to play and he’s helping the team win, so he contributes, a lot of other players are contributing, and again, credit to Davey for putting all these pieces together and making it work.”
“I was told that he plays the complete game,” Martinez said on Wednesday afternoon, “and I watched him take — he goes around and takes fly balls in center field, and he moves really well, he really does for a kid that’s kind of a bigger stature kid. He’s done well.
“I try to keep positive with him and just tell him to go out there and have fun and continue to do the things he’s doing.”
Martinez put Soto atop the order against the Orioles because he said he thought he would match up well with right-hander David Hess, who was making his fourth major league start, but the manager didn’t commit to it as an idea for the lineup long-term.
“We’ll see how it plays out,” he said.
“I know he’s never done it before, but he’ll get some pitches to hit, he’ll get on base if he keeps doing what he’s doing, so we’ll see how it works out.”
Martinez and Rizzo both seem pretty comfortable, based on what they’ve seen, that even at 19, Soto can handle whatever they throw at him as well as he’s handled what pitchers have.
“You take a look at the player as a whole,” Rizzo told the Junkies when asked about deciding Soto could jump from Double-A to the majors.
“What are his skill sets and how does he approach the game, and Juan was a young 19-year-old player, who had a routine like big leaguers have, he comes to the ballpark at the same time, gets his work in, does what he’s supposed to do, and again, the biggest asset that he carries with him other than the physical skills and the bat speed and balance and that type of thing, is he controls the strike zone. He has a propensity to know what pitches he can handle, what are strikes, what are balls, doesn’t chase very often, and I think that with any hitter at any age at any level, if you can swing at pitches that you can handle that are strikes, and you’re not chasing out of the zone, it gives you a chance to be a special player, and hitters hit and the players that I’ve brought up at that age in my career have the propensity to know the strike zone, and regardless of their age they handle the situation and aren’t affected by what we call the ‘second-deck syndrome.’”
How did Soto handle his first game as a leadoff hitter?
Soto saw just one pitch in his first at bat, grounding out to short on a 92 mph fastball belt-high outside from the O’s righty.
Soto battled Hess for nine pitches the second time up, but fouled a 3-2 fastball into catcher Chance Sisco’s mitt, 0 for 2, and popped up behind second on a 2-2 fastball in his third trip to the plate, 0 for 3.
There were two on and two out when Soto came up again in the seventh, against Orioles’ right-hander Miguel Castro and threw his bat at a 1-2 changeup outside, punching an RBI single to left to make it 2-0 Nationals.
“That’s just good hitting,” Martinez said of Soto’s approach, when he talked after the game.
“They threw him a lot of offspeed pitches today, but he had good swings, and he battled and it’s a learning process for him and he’s doing really well. He knocked in a big run for us.”
And the pitch that Soto hit, which was the fourth straight changeup of the at bat, and was well outside... as in it ended up in the right-handed batter’s box.
“If you notice, he’s got an unbelievable two-strike approach, he really does,” Martinez said.
“He spreads out and just uses his hands and he puts the ball in play.”