When the Houston Astros finalized their roster Tuesday morning ahead of the first game of the World Series, they did so with two Cy Young contenders, another former Cy Young winner, a former MVP, a former World Series MVP, and this season’s MLB saves leader.
But one thing they didn’t have? A left-handed pitcher.
That may come back to haunt them, especially after the performance 20-year-old Juan Soto put on for the Washington Nationals in their 5-4 victory in Game 1. Soto finished 3-4 with a solo home run in the fourth inning that tied the game and a two-RBI double in the fifth that put his team up by three.
With the unquestioned best pitcher of the postseason in Gerrit Cole taking the mound, runs figured to come at a premium in Game 1. And given only one position player (Vladimir Guerrero Jr.) in the majors is younger than Soto, it would’ve been understandable if he struggled to start this series—that is, if you knew nothing about him.
Early on, that’s exactly how it appeared things were going to go. Cole set down five of the first six hitters he faced, including a nasty three-pitch strikeout of Soto in which he threw only fastballs and touched 99 on the last one. But despite the results of that first at-bat, Soto didn’t change his approach when he came up a second time.
“For me I was thinking the same thing, be aggressive on the fastball and waiting for the fastball,” Soto said after the game. “He likes to throw it. He’s shown the fastball everywhere. The first couple of innings, he started throwing it and throwing it and throwing it. I [was] just waiting for that. After the first at-bat I was like, He’s throwing really hard. But I just try to sit back and hit the ball all the way.”
And that’s exactly what he did, taking a first-pitch slider up in the zone before crushing a four-seamer that came in right over the heart of the plate. Statcast projected the ball to travel 417 feet with an exit velocity of 106 mph, making Soto’s home run the deepest and hardest-hit opposite-field homer Cole had allowed all season.
“For me he’s really good. He’s been throwing a lot of good pitches today,” Soto said. “I’m glad I face him in Spring Training, too. So I know how the ball -- how the ball going to be, how high it going to be, the curveball, the slider, everything, because I face him in Spring Training.
“I got the report, he throw a lot of fastball, he likes to throw the fastball. I just sit there and waited for the fastball.”
Cole wouldn’t throw Soto another fastball again. When he came up for his third at-bat in the fifth, the right-hander had already allowed Adam Eaton to drive in the go-ahead run earlier in the inning and runners were on first and third with two outs. He threw Soto three straight balls, all on breaking pitches, before battling back and working the count full.
On the sixth pitch of the at-bat, Cole threw a slider down and away that had some cutting action to it. It was a well-executed pitch, but Soto was waiting on it. He smacked the ball off the left-field wall—yes, another opposite field hit—and it caromed away far enough for Anthony Rendon to score from first.
“I mean, that’s Juan being Juan,” Nationals manager Davey Martinez said in his postgame press conference. “He has to hit the ball all over the field. He’s really good at staying behind balls and hitting the ball left center field, left field. And he was really good tonight. He worked on it. We talked about this earlier, one night he sat in the cage and hit for a while and just wanted to work on just staying on the ball and going the other way.
“My biggest thing with him, and I tell him all the time, is take your walks. Put yourself in a good position to hit and take your walks. But when you get a good pitch to hit, be ready to hit it.”
Soto didn’t walk Tuesday night (he flipped another opposite-field hit in the eighth off reliever Will Harris to finish his evening), but he’s certainly not afraid to do it. No player in the history of the sport has drawn more walks before their 21st birthday than Soto (187). And with 108 free passes this year, he became only the third 20-year-old since 1900 to draw at least 100 walks in a season. The other two? Hall of Famers Ted Williams and Mel Ott.
“You can always tell the young guys that come up that can slow the game down,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “I always say that, and everyone kind of says, ‘What does that mean?’ It means at any moment, at any time you can take a deep breath and you don’t try to do too much and you just stay within yourself. And it sounds easy to do, but it’s hard to do even in the regular season for a 20-, 21-year-old, whatever, and [Victor] Robles, all those guys. To be able to do it on this stage, to be able to execute the plan that he had, he’s got a chance to be okay.”
The patient approach and relaxed attitude speak to the maturity of Soto, who is playing in a World Series at an age when most Americans are still deciding what their future is going to look like. Well the future is here, and Soto isn’t waiting around to make his presence known.
Houston is still a formidable matchup and just as capable as any team of erasing a 1-0 series deficit. But the Astros look like they have some serious trouble on their hands in Soto.
Without a lefty waiting in the bullpen, manager A.J. Hinch will have to hold his breath every time he sends a reliever in to face him without a platoon advantage.
On Friday, Soto will turn 21 and won’t have to run around with a bottle of grape juice in lieu of champagne at any playoff-clinching celebrations. Whether or not the next one of those parties comes this year or some other time down the line in part rests on his shoulders.
And he’s just fine with that.