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Washington Nationals’ Juan Soto and the cat-and-mouse game with the Houston Astros

Juan Soto was 4 for 7 with two doubles and a home run in the first two games of the World Series, and 0 for 7 in the second two. What have the Astros done to adjust to him?

World Series - Houston Astros v Washington Nationals - Game Four Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Houston Astros’ skipper A.J. Hinch talked, after Juan Soto went 3 for 4 with a double and a home run in Game 1 of the World Series, about finally getting a close look at Washington’s recently-turned 21-year-old outfielder. Soto was, at that point, 12 for 42 (.286/.362/.548) in his first postseason run, with two doubles, three home runs, four walks, and 14 Ks over 11 games and 47 plate appearances in October.

Soto K’d swinging the first time up against Gerrit Cole in that game, then hit a game-tying solo home run on a 1-0 fastball up in the zone (which he was looking for) in his second trip to the plate against the Astros’ starter, before driving in a double on a full-count slider the third time up, and then singling off reliever Will Harris in his final plate appearance.

“We haven’t seen him a ton in person,” Hinch said. “A little bit of Spring Training, which doesn’t count. But he was clearly the key guy that we couldn’t control tonight. His bat speed is electric. His energy and his body is as advertised. He’s calm in the moment.

“Clearly this is not too big a stage for him. I think he’s taking big swings early on, bounced back from the punch-out, had three really good at-bats, big hits. He was the difference in the game.”

Soto said he was seeing the ball well as the World Series got underway.

“Last couple of days we’ve been working on it, tried to keep -- staying that way, hit the ball to the other way, middle of the way, try to hit the ball as deep as I can, and just hit it.”

He embraced the challenge of going up against a pitcher as good as Cole, who’d been unbeaten since May before taking the loss in the series opener.

“For me he’s really good. He’s been throwing a lot of good pitches today. 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.

“And just try to -- 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, in his press conference before his second start of the series tonight in Game 5, was asked about Soto’s comments about looking for the fastball that he hit out.

“Well, I remember him hitting against me in Spring Training,” Cole said. “And I would expect him to be looking for a fastball after the first at-bat.”

Soto K’d swinging at a 99 MPH, 0-2 fastball up high outside the first time up in that game, on the third of three fastballs Cole threw him, and talked to reporters afterwards about adjustments he tried to make when he came up again.

“For me I was thinking the same thing,” he said, “be aggressive on the fastball and waiting for the fastball. 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.”

Hinch talked after the series opener about what makes Soto so hard to pitch to, as young as he is.

“At this point age is sort of a number,” he said.

“He’s had so many at-bats at the Major League level. I don’t even look at him as young until you see his face. He’s got kind of the ‘it’ factor. He’s got the twitch. He’s got fast hands.

“He’s got no fear. I think that’s big for a young hitter. Early in his career to just kind of leave it out there. It looks like he’s completely in control of enjoying the moment. And he hit all sorts of different pitches.

“The first homer he hit was a pretty good -- Gerrit Cole throwing a high fastball up and away, that’s not easy to do, and then to come back from that and get to a full count.

“Gets in the big count against Cole, doesn’t get overly too amped up and then takes a ball off the Crawford box or the wall, at least. He’s mature. Don’t let the age fool you.”

Soto went 1 for 3 with a double, two walks, and two runs scored in the Nationals’ 12-3 win in Game 2, but since the series shifted back to the nation’s capital, he’s 0 for 7 with two walks.

What adjustments did the Astros make in the way they’re attacking him?

“We’re pretty good, too,” Hinch told the reporter who asked that question after Game 3.

“We’re going to try to adapt to him. And I think our pitchers did a good job of mixing. We didn’t stay in one area, we didn’t get him out the same way twice, really.”

“I think it was more of an endgame cat-and-mouse approach,” he added, “trying to keep him from getting the same look twice.”

Nationals’ manager Davey Martinez was asked after Game 4, in which Soto was 0 for 3 with a walk, K, and RBI groundout, what, if any, adjustments his outfielder needs to make to get going again, and what he’s seen the Astros doing in terms of adjustments against Soto?

“I’m not overly concerned about what they’re doing to him,” Martinez said.

“I just want him to understand. He’s really good when he stays in the middle of the field. He needs to stay in the middle of the field and take his walks. That’s the key to him. Don’t try to do too much and just stay in the middle of the field.”