Talking before he made his 2021 debut, following a stint on the COVID-IL, Josh Bell said he was looking forward to hitting behind Juan Soto, which he did in the first game of three in St. Louis, MO’s Busch Stadium earlier this week.
Bell, 28, and one of two new middle of the order bats (along with Kyle Schwarber) that the Washington Nationals brought in this winter (via a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates in his case) to provide protection for Soto, did not hide his excitement about the opportunities he’d get hitting behind someone who is on base as often as the 22-year-old outfielder.
“His on-base percentage is .450 for a reason,” Bell said, “so he’s going to be over there for me, he’s going to be at first, second, or third for me, so I’m definitely excited. It’s exciting times for me as a baseball player. And finally excited to be in the lineup tonight.”
He hoped, Bell said, that he could provide the protection for Soto that he was, at least in part, acquired to provide.
“That’s what I’m here for,” he said. “That’s what I was trying to do for [Andrew] McCutchen in PNC, so hopefully I can do that here with the Nationals.”
Soto was on base in four of Bell’s five plate appearances that night, and though he did hit into an inning-ending double play the first time up, and strike out the second time, he did walk and eventually score in the third PA in which Soto reached in front of him, and he hit a single after the young outfielder reached base a fourth time, though both were stranded.
Soto reached base just once in front of Bell in the second of three with the Cardinals, but he struck out, and for the finale in St. Louis, Ryan Zimmerman started at first and hit third in the order behind Soto, who moved to the No. 2 spot in that game, after hitting third in his eight previous games played this season.
Zimmerman homered when Soto reached base in front of him in the third inning of the 6-0 win which gave the Nationals their first series win this season, flew out with Trea Turner and Soto on in front of him in the fifth, and was up when Soto was caught trying to steal second after grounding into a force in the seventh, driving in a run, and beating out a potential DP before he was thrown out.
“It’s great to hit behind someone like Juan,” Zimmerman, the 36-year-old, 16-year veteran said.
“He’s on base it seems like 6 out of 10 times. I enjoy hitting with people on base.
“It’s also important to have a guy like me or Josh or [Kyle Schwarber] or whoever is going to hit behind him, to make the other team pitch to him. He’s one of the best hitters in the game, and If we don’t have a guy behind him that can do damage and punish them for when they just continually put him on, then the other team is going to do that. But yeah, it’s good to see the way Juan battles and doesn’t ever waste at bats, so it’s fun to watch him.”
Soto’s walked in six of 38 plate appearances before last night’s game, tied with 20 others for the 39th most walks in the majors early this season, and his two intentional walks were tied with six other hitters for the most in the majors, while his on-base percentage (.474) was the 10th best in baseball at that point.
His manager, Davey Martinez said that it’s Soto’s OBP, above all other stats, that he focuses as the number that matters most when he judges the 2020 NL batting champ’s work at the plate.
“The biggest thing for Juan and we talk about it all the time, is on-base percentage,” Soto’s skipper said.
“And only because I know his slugging is going to be there, but we often talk about if they are going to pitch to him, they’re not going to pitch to him, but the fact that he can continue to take his walks and swing at good pitches is huge, and if he can continue to do that he’s going to put up really good numbers.”
In the series opener with the Arizona D-backs in D.C., Bell doubled the first time up, driving Soto in after Soto hit his own double, but he struck out after Soto singled in his final plate appearance of the night in the ninth, with the Nationals trailing 11-6.