Juan Soto went 5 for 18 (.278/.409/.611) with two home runs, three walks, and four Ks in the NLDS with the Los Angeles Dodgers, with two hits in Game 5, an RBI single and homer that tied things up at 3-3 in the eighth before the Washington Nationals won in extra innings to advance to the NLCS.
St. Louis Cardinals’ manager Mike Shildt told reporters going into Game 1 that the Nationals’ 20-year-old outfielder has definitely made a strong impression.
“He’s very disciplined regardless of age, but more importantly, more impressive based on his age,” Shildt said.
“He’s not going to chase a whole lot. He’s a very disciplined hitter, but he’s also ready to, he’s really focused on doing damage in the zone. So he’s a clear talent and like all hitters you got to execute your pitches and being able to control counts is going to be important with him and but he’s got a real skill set.”
Soto’s teammate, Max Scherzer, who’s set to start Game 2 of the NLCS, was asked in his pre-start press conference what one thing stands out as the most impressive aspect of Soto’s game?
“That’s a good question,” the 35-year-old, three-time Cy Young winner said. “I don’t know, because the way he plays the game, he plays the game with energy, he understands the game at a really high level. Has a very good baseball IQ and really has a really, really good hitter’s IQ. Really understands what he’s trying to do at the plate, able to make adjustments, able to take on the data, which is I think rare because, typically, you see it with younger players and I can speak to this. Just when you’re young and trying to solidify yourself, you’re trying to solidify yourself in the baseball standards, but to be able to take on the data is a whole different ballgame. And the fact that you can do both, especially when you’re young, that really is a testament to how smart he is and really what he can do at the plate.”
Davey Martinez told reporters in St. Louis that he’s been really impressed with the way Soto has embraced the spotlight of postseason play.
“We have said this all along,” Martinez said, “even when I first met him, at 19, when I first saw him, how poised he was, how he did everything. Almost like very methodical how his thought process is. So we played some big games, and this sticks out to me because we were in New York and we had 50,000 people in a big series and I thought this is the first time we get to see him and Victor [Robles], the young guys, playing in a big atmosphere like that. And, man, he was all in. He was excited, he was revved up.
“And now we’re in the postseason and it doesn’t seem, nothing seems to bother him, he just wants to go out there and have good at-bats and play good defense and help us win.”
Asked when he first realized what he had, Martinez retold the story of his first real exposure to Soto in Spring Training before the start of his first season on the bench in D.C. in 2018.
“I’ll go back in Spring Training the first time I saw him,” Martinez began.
“He came up, we brought him in as an extra player, I got him in the game, they told me, ‘You got to see this kid, he’s pretty good.’ I said, ‘Okay, you know, he’s 19.’
“And he gets in, first at-bat he has is against a left-handed pitcher, he goes up there, guy throws him a slider in the dirt, he missed it by a mile. I thought, okay, we got a 19-year-old kid. All right. So he stepped out of the box, shook his head a little bit, gets back in the box, next pitch, guy throws him the same pitch and he just looks at it and takes it and looks down and just goes [nods his head]. And I’m thinking to myself, huh. Next pitch, same pitch, got it up a little bit, and he hit a rocket off the left center field wall.
“And I thought, ‘Whoa, that’s pretty impressive that a kid could just step back and say, okay, I just saw one, I swung.’
“So the next time I saw him, basically almost the same thing, like he got up there and did, swung at a bad pitch, stepped back, regrouped, got back in the box, took the same pitch, took another pitch, and then hit a bullet to right.
“And then I started inquiring about this kid. And then we get him. Howie [Kendrick] gets hurt, that’s how we end up getting him. And I’m sitting in my office and [GM Mike Rizzo] comes in, after I spoke to the media, he comes in and sits down and we’re sitting there and I said, ‘Man, we’re losing players like crazy.’ And he says, yup, and he says I’m bringing up Soto. And I went, what? You know, he’s 19. He goes, he’ll be all right. He said just you got to watch him, just got to teach him how to play the outfield. And I said well, we’ll break him in slow and just figure out, maybe let him play against right-handed pitching.
“So we get him, first game he sits, watches, second game, put him in, and against a lefty. I said, you know, whatever. And first at-bat he hits a three-run bomb to left center field. And I said, well, so much for platooning him. So I said, well, just let him, we’ll play him until he shows me that he can’t play and we’ll figure something out. And the guy’s been playing ever since. Never wants to come out of the game, I try to give him days off, doesn’t like it. Just wants to continue to play and every time I see him he gets better and better. His outfield play, I looked up at his numbers in the outfield and I thought to myself, he’s got a pretty good chance to win a Gold Glove in left field, I mean he’s been that good. But just, he’s a student of the game, loves to play the game, loves to get better, and works diligently at every aspect of the game.”
Martinez was also asked before the game about the so-called “Soto Shuffle”, the two-step, “personal” adjustment thing he does after taking pitches at the plate, which Soto and the Nats’ manager talked about at length earlier this week.
The second-year skipper was asked before the game what he thought about the “Soto Shuffle” and how he thought it was perceived by veteran pitches around the league.
“For me, and I said this before, at first when I saw him doing it I thought ... you know, it’s a little, you know,” Martinez equivocated. “But then after talking to him and watching him, it’s a routine that he uses to get to the next pitch. I mean, when you talk to him he really feels like that’s his batter’s box, he owns that batter’s box. And when he does that, it’s basically just saying, hey, I’m going to get back in here and I’m going to get ready to hit the next pitch. If he misses one or whatever or if he takes one, it’s just his way of saying, hey, this is my batter’s box, it’s part of the game, we got a game, it’s me against you, and I’m going to try to beat you.”
Soto did his whole reset thing a couple times in a bases-loaded, fifth inning at bat against Cards’ starter Miles Mikolas in Game 1 of the NLCS, and when Soto grounded out, Mikolas shot a crotch grab back at the Nationals’ outfielder. Uh-oh, drama?
“He has a routine where he shuffles around the box, and adjusts his cup and whatnot, but I was just having fun out there,” Mikolas explained, as quoted by MLB.com’s Steve Gilbert, after what ended up a 2-0 loss for the Cards.
“Kind of giving it back to him in a good-natured, ribbing kind of way. No intent to be mean or trying to start anything, just having fun out of there.”
“For me, that’s good,” Soto said in the visitor’s clubhouse in Busch Stadium after going 1 for 5 in his first NLCS game.
“If he reacts, that don’t matter, because he got me out. I don’t care. He can do whatever he wants. I’m just going to laugh about it. We’re going to keep going and face him again.”