Even in a shortened, middle-of-a-pandemic season, there are still some sparks flying between the Washington Nationals and their National League East rivals, the Atlanta Braves.
In the series opener, the Nats charged out to an early lead thanks to three long balls in the first five innings and were able to keep their hosts at bay for most of the game.
But it was later in the game that some drama bubbled to the surface...
In the top of the ninth inning with the Nationals leading 5-3, the reigning NL Player of the Week, Juan Soto, stepped into the batter’s box. He then did what Juan Soto does and deposited a first-pitch fastball from Will Smith into the left field seats for a home run.
After the ball was launched, Soto admired his bomb with a few sidesteps down the line. Smith didn’t seem too pleased with that, staring and yelling at the young slugger before Soto stared back and casually flicked his bat away before jogging around the bases.
Looks like Juan Soto has some beef with Will Smith. Absolutely pimped the home run and stared him down. pic.twitter.com/eTJ7HmibpY— Blake Finney (@FinneyBlake) August 18, 2020
And for the lip-readers out there, Smith had some choice words for Soto’s actions...
And then Will Smith had a NSFW response... pic.twitter.com/MmzEnITjIL— Blake Finney (@FinneyBlake) August 18, 2020
Obviously, the Braves then went on to rally in the ninth inning as they pulled off a stunning four-run comeback, completed by Dansby Swanson’s walk-off two-run home run to deep center field.
In among the frustrations of his team letting a late four-run lead, the Nationals’ manager wasn’t too happy with what the Braves’ reliever was saying towards Soto...
“Will Smith said something to Soto that I didn’t really appreciate,” Martinez told reporters after the game when asked about the drama between the two players.
“I just wanted to let him know, ‘Hey, it wasn’t Juan that threw the ball, his job is to hit it, so just be quiet and get on the mound. You threw the pitch. Make a better pitch.’”
Feisty words from the Nats’ skipper in defense of Soto.
Given that Martinez has previously whispered to Soto that he may need to pick and choose his moments to show the flair that fans and teammates love, you can read into that what you will and probably assume it wasn’t nothing that he was getting riled up over with Smith.
Martinez was then asked whether it was a recurring theme of pitchers disliking Soto’s emotion while he’s at the plate and he backed his young slugger up even further.
“I’ve said this before, I think he means nothing by what he does,” Martinez explained. “When he does his shuffle, it’s just to get him to the next pitch. He doesn’t do it to show anybody up.
“When pitchers start acting the way they’re acting, you know, it does bother him, but he doesn’t do anything back. He stands up there and he gets a good pitch to hit and he hits the ball really hard. That’s what you’re supposed to do.”
Even though the manager may have hinted at expecting some retaliation in the future, he doesn’t want Soto to stop being himself. His shuffle and confidence in the box helps him get locked in and get into the pitcher’s head, it’s a fundamental part of him as a ballplayer.
“What’s funny is I said, ‘Look, it’s not going to be the first time you get hit or the last, it’s part of it” the Nats’ manager said, “we’ll keep an eye on you and what transpires from it and we’ll go from there, but don’t let that determine what kind of hitter you are. You’re a really good hitter, so get ready to hit good pitches,’ and that’s what he does.”
Maybe this won’t be the last we hear of this drama if the Braves and Smith are still annoyed, for some reason, at Soto watching his long home run fly into the seats.
The Nationals’ manager put it well, if you aren’t happy with a player like Soto watching his home run and flicking his bat away, pitch better and don’t give them a chance to do so. It’s that simple.