After all the accolades during his first couple weeks of action, Juan Soto was actually having a slow series against the Miami Marlins. Days after winning the National League Player of the Week award, he was 0-for-6 with a pair of strikeouts in the series’ first two games before going 1-for-3 in each of the next two games. He could not drive in a run or score one in either.
That four-game stretch qualifies as a slump for the 21-year-old superstar, and he broke out in his own Juan Soto way. He feasted on Marlins’ pitching Monday night for four hits, a pair of singles and a pair of doubles, driving in one run and scoring another in the Nats’ 11-8 loss to the Miami Marlins. Nats’ starting pitcher Austin Voth let the game get out of hand before Soto’s hitting fueled a rally that put the Nats back in it. In doing so, Soto raised his average to an even .400 on the season and his OPS to 1.302.
Manager Davey Martinez said Soto’s solution to his short slump was to get back to work in the cage and focus on hitting the ball to the middle of the field.
“He had one day or two days where he was pulling off a little bit, and he got right back to it in batting practice, to wearing out left-center field,” Martinez said afterward.
“When he does that, I know he’s going to start swinging better, and he starts trying to hit everything to right-center, left-center.”
Soto and the Nats knew they could hit against Marlins’ starter Pablo López, even though Lopez came into the game as Miami’s most consistent starter with a 2.42 ERA on the season. In five career starts against the Nats, Lopez had given up 22 runs on 33 hits in 22 1⁄3 innings, including two starts at Nationals Park where the Marlins blew leads of 7-0 and 8-4.
Soto had the only two Nationals’ hits against López through four innings as the Marlins built a 7-0 lead. With nobody on base, López didn’t mind pitching to Soto, despite the fact that Soto was 3-for-5 with a double and a homer against him last season. In their first meeting this year, Soto worked the count full before choking up on the bat and opening his stance, then driving a change-up back up the middle for a single.
“You’re seeing someone really mature every year,” said Martinez.
“I think now he understands what he can do. He knows what pitches that he’s looking for, what he can hit hard.”
Facing Soto to lead off the fourth, López again seemed unconcerned about putting the ball over the plate, and Soto took a strike before fouling one off to go 0-2. After López missed with a fastball, Soto turned on a 1-2 cutter and ripped it to right, hustling to second before right fielder Jesús Sánchez could retrieve the ball.
“Even his foul balls that he’s hitting, on tough pitches, he’s hitting them pretty good. So when he’s staying behind the ball like that he’s going to hit,” said Martinez
Soto hadn’t seen a chance with men on base, but he got one with two out in the fifth after Adam Eaton’s RBI single. This time, he jumped on the first pitch he saw from Lopez, making solid contact on a single to right. He was stranded for the third time but had helped the Nats mount their first threat in a high-scoring game.
Soto finally came to the plate with a man in scoring position after Trea Turner led off the seventh with a double down the right field line. With one out, Soto fell behind Richard Bleier, fouling off a 1-1 slider before finding the pitch he liked, a sinker on the inside part of the plate. This time, he barrelled the ball toward the right-field fence, off the warning track, and into the Nats’ bullpen. Turner scored on the ground-rule double, Soto scored on Luis García’s base hit to make it 9-5, and the Nats had some momentum.
“We try to keep it close, because we always feel like we can come back and win games late,” said Martinez. “That’s how I want them to think. We just keep pounding away and you never know.”
By the time Soto came up for the fifth time, following Adam Eaton’s three run homer in the eighth, the Nats had again pulled within three and a potential comeback was plausible. This time, Soto worked a full count against Brad Boxberger before pulling an 82-mph change-up to the right side, into the shift. Second baseman Jonathan Villar ranged to his left to keep the ball from sneaking through the infield, and his throw to first was just in time to retire Soto for the first time on the night.
Despite three pull hits on Monday, Martinez said Soto’s focus on using the whole field is paying big benefits.
“He’s really staying behind the ball really well right now,” said Martinez. “He’s getting the ball in the strike zone, and he’s hitting the ball really, really hard.”