Juan Soto didn’t play in a Grapefruit League game again after he tweaked his right calf in an eleven-pitch at bat against Miami Marlins’ starter Sixto Sánchez on March 25th which ended with Soto walking in what he said was his best plate appearance of the spring.
Soto didn’t want to leave that game after the head-to-head matchup focused him in, and left him 6 for 33 (.182/.289/.182) with all six hits singles, five walks, and five strikeouts in a total of 13 games.
“I really wanted to stay,” he said the day after his early exit, “because I took a really long at bat, and I think that at bat was something else. It made me feel almost in the season. It made me feel ready to go. I really wanted to stay, but they just want to cover me and save me for the season, and they just want me to get as much rest as I can to get ready for Opening Day.”
He’s got the whole in his hands... pic.twitter.com/uopWJMDxWJ— federalbaseball (@federalbaseball) March 26, 2021
He didn’t seem too concerned about the calf.
“It just got a little tight,” Soto said.
“And they just wanted me to save it and keep it and they don’t want me to force it, so they just shut me down.”
The issue cropped up last Thursday, but he tested it with some light running on Saturday.
“Juan ran yesterday a little bit,” manager Davey Martinez said on Sunday morning. “He ran 90 feet in a straight line.
“Today, he’s going to come back, get treatment, do some strengthening stuff, and he’s going to start running arcs, and then we’ll see how he feels after that.”
By “arcs”, Martinez said, he meant simulating running the bases by running around the lip of the outfield grass.
The plan for Monday, Martinez explained, was to have Soto and Starlin Castro (hamstring) test their respective leg issues as the rest of the club played the final game of the spring.
“[Soto] hit in the cage,” the manager said. “He feels good hitting. Nothing bothers him hitting. We’ll see how he feels. With Castro, we’re going to get him on the back fields, get him at bats, and we could possibly do the same thing with Juan as well, but I want to make sure — the idea is to get them ready for Opening Day. So I want to make sure that that’s our priority right now.”
While his numbers this spring haven’t been particularly impressive, Soto has said he is still working on things, tracking pitches, letting the ball get deep on him as he builds up to the start of his fourth major league campaign.
“I’ve been trying to see the ball well, try to stay through the middle, and oppo, try to don’t get out in front a little bit. Just try to see the ball travel,” Soto said of his approach in his at bats in Grapefruit League action.
“Right now, yeah, I start seeing results in the last couple days. Like yesterday [and the plate appearance against Sánchez] was one of the best results I ever see. I take a lot of pitches, I fouled off a lot of balls.
“And at the end of the day, I just took my walk, and it was one of the best at bats I’ve taken in Spring Training this year. So, yeah, I think I started seeing the results.”
Spring Training stats, of course, are not a source of concern for Soto, or his coaches.
“It’s Spring Training. Everybody wants to be on their height, because they want to be on the team, they want to make the team,” Soto said.
“For me, right now, I tell them I’ve been working on a couple things, and they understand that, so I just don’t worry about that because I know what I can do, so I just forget about the numbers and try to work in every at bat.”
Coming off a 2020 season in which he led the NL in batting average, finishing second in the majors, the preternaturally gifted, and patient, hitter is determined to stay in the strike zone, and take walks if necessary to help his team.
“I’m the kind of guy I just come to the plate, and try to get my job done,” Soto said, giving a scouting report on himself as a hitter.
“Every situation that I get in [on] the field and everything, I just try to get it done. For me, this year is going to be better, I’m going to have a lot of cover behind me.
“Last year the goal was just stay in my zone, don’t try to chase anything outside the zone.
“I know they’re going to be a little bit more aggressive with me this year, just try to be aggressive too, the same way, just try to stay in my zone.
“I think that’s what I want to get done after Spring Training is done and the start of the season, just try to concentrate, be more aggressive, but still stay in the zone.”
“For him it hasn’t been a struggle in the past,” his manager said of Soto’s discipline at the plate.
“When he does struggle it’s typically that he is chasing,” Martinez said.
“We always remind him, ‘Hey, just take your walks.’ But he’s been pretty good. And I think nothing really bothers him.
“Whether he’s hitting second, third, fourth, he wants to do whatever he can to help us win.
“But he’s just such a really good hitter.
“He understands what he wants to do when he’s up there. He understands how to break down pitchers, especially during his at bats, and what they’re trying to do.
“He’s a special individual when it comes to hitting. Anywhere we put him in that lineup, we talk to him, and he says, ‘I don’t really care who hits behind me, who hits in front of me, I just want to play and I want to help our club win.’”
That being said, the Nationals do care who hits in front of and behind Soto this season, and they made the moves they did this offseason with that in mind. Martinez said he thinks they have done a good job of providing protection for him in the lineup.
“Juan, last year he hit second, he hit fourth, third, I think this year I want him to bat second, I want to keep him second, we’ve got Josh Bell, we’ve got [Kyle] Schwarber, we have [Starlin] Castro hitting behind him, and I think that’s going to work. The good thing about Soto is that he understands the strike zone, and we talk to him all the time about not expanding his strike zone, take his walks, and he understands that. The big thing for him is when he gets a pitch that he thinks he can hit, he doesn’t miss them. He’s pretty good about making good, solid contact as we all know.”