Juan Soto started Sunday’s series finale with the Baltimore Orioles in Camden Yards on a tear. Six games into the current three-city, ten-game road trip, the 21-year-old’s 10 for 23 stretch, in which he’d hit a double and five home runs, striking out just once, had him at .405/.463/.973 for the season with three doubles, six homers, three walks, and four Ks overall in the 10 games he’d played since returning from a positive test for COVID-19 that delayed the start of his 2020 campaign.
Saturday night’s home run, an opposite field blast on a hanging 2-0 curve from Orioles’ starter Asher Wojciechowski got Nationals’ skipper Davey Martinez talking again about Washington’s preternaturally talented outfielder’s swing. Is the opposite field power he displayed and the way he waited on that pitch a sign of how locked in Soto is now?
“Obviously that’s who he is,” Martinez said. “When he gets in trouble he starts trying to pull everything, and I think he’s making a conscious effort right now to really stay in the middle of the field.
“But when he does that, he gets to balls — his swing stays in the zone such a long time, and he’s able to do that.”
Martinez, of course, has a good vantage point from which to admire Soto’s swing and his approach, sitting in the dugout for each game and watching the way the third-year major leaguer takes each at bat.
“If you’re sitting in the dugout and watching from my view, man, it’s a beautiful thing, it really is,” Martinez said of Soto’s swing.
“If I had to do it all over again and start playing right now, right now he’d be the guy I’d want my kid to watch hit because he’s got that swing, he stays back and uses his hand, and tries to stay in the middle of the field.
“When I grow up, in my next life, I want to be just like Juan Soto.”
With Adam Eaton sitting on Sunday, Martinez, who hit Soto in the clean-up spot Saturday night, moved him up to the No. 2 spot in the lineup.
The swing, combined with his plate discipline, Martinez said earlier on the Nationals’ road trip, make Soto an especially difficult out for opposing pitchers.
“He’s very mature and he understands the game,” the manager said.
“He really understands the game and he has a game plan every time he steps up there. He watches, he pays attention. He watches pitchers, what their sequences are, so he’s always going up there having a game plan.
“When he’s swinging the bat like he is now, you very rarely see him swinging at balls outside the strike zone. The ball is always in the vicinity of the strike zone. For a young hitter, that’s something that when we got him a couple years ago, that we liked about him.
“He understood the strike zone, that he’s not afraid to take his walks. When you can do that and you can put the ball in play like he does, he’s going to hit the ball hard consistently.”
Soto, who spent time hitting second in his rookie campaign, but hit there just once in 2019, singled the first time up as a No. 2 hitter on Sunday, shooting a shift-beating grounder out to left, and he was 2 for 3 with a K (on some questionable called strikes) after he singled to left with the defense in a shift again in the fifth.
Soto walked with two out in the sixth, and took another free pass in the eighth, reaching base in four of five plate appearances, 2 for 3, two BBs, and three runs scored.
It seemed to go well. Why did his manager put him in as the No. 2 hitter?
“I wanted Juan to get up and get as many at bats as possible, so we batted him second,” the third-year manager explained.
“I liked it. Trea [Turner] gets on, [Soto] gets a chance to hit with somebody on. He got a couple hits, had a walk, we thought about hitting him third and hitting [Asdrúbal Cabrera] — but I wanted Cabby to give him some kind of protection, so like I said, it worked out.”
“For me, it was a surprise for me to hit second,” Soto said after the win over the Orioles. “I just think about I’ve got to get on base. I was thinking the whole night how I’m going to be in the game, trying to figure out how we’re going to swing the bat and everything, take some pitches and try to get on base for my teammates.”
Has he felt as locked in as he’s looked on the road trip?
“I’m seeing all the pitches great,” Soto said.
“Every kind of pitch ... I’m seeing it really well. I’m taking my pitches, I’m taking my walks. But when they miss I don’t miss it. That’s the difference I’m seeing right now.
“Just try to don’t miss their mistakes. So I just try to keep the same things, keep the same routine, try to keep it short, simple.
“Don’t try to do too much because it [will] maybe get in my mind and then I break anything and my routine and everything goes out.
“So I just try to keep it simple, try to keep the same thing every day, and try to play the game.”