The ball rocketed off Juan Soto’s bat, heading over the right field bleachers at Wrigley Field and clanging off the top of the scoreboard — an emphatic statement.
Juan Soto was back.
Not that he was ever really gone, but Soto has been slowly working back from a shoulder strain, and hadn’t really displayed any power since coming off the Injured List.
“I really let the ball travel a little bit,” Soto said afterward.
Soto’s last homer was on May 7. His last double before Tuesday night was April 19. It may not have been an actual slump, but to Soto, it felt like one.
On Tuesday, he logged his third multi-hit game of the month, in the Nats’ 6-3 loss, and he looked like he’d found his stroke.
Then came Wednesday. Soto flew out in the first against Jake Arrieta and singled through the hole in his third at-bat of the game, in the fourth, a positive sign.
But the homer leading off the fifth inning left no doubt that Soto had found his power stroke.
“He’s been really hitting the ball hard, it’s just been on the ground,” said Martinez after the game. “Now he’s starting to elevate the ball. So it’s good to see. Huge game for him today.”
Left knee on the ground and right foot extended from his follow through, Soto admired the shot for as long as it took him to stand up straight, and he broke into a huge smile rounding the bases.
The slump was over.
The home run capped the Nationals’ scoring, and Soto singled in his next at-bat in the seventh to cap a 3-for-5 night, tying his mark for the most hits he’s collected in a game this season.
Soto’s longest hitless streak this season has been eight games, but his .264 average after the first two games of the Chicago series was not up to his usual level of play, and he had been hitting the ball on the ground more than usual.
But the elevation was back when he launched a hanging cutter from Arrieta over the crowd and off the scoreboard for his fourth homer of the year.
“I’m seeing the ball really well against him,” Soto explained. “Since I see that ball coming in, I know he’s not going to be down or anything like that, it’s a cutter. He tried it in my at-bat before. So I was a little bit aware of it, and I just see it and I got good contact.”
Soto credited work with hitting coach Kevin Long.
“It feels better,“ Soto said. “We figured it out little by little. I think I feel great. I started putting the ball in the air a couple times, and it feels almost normal again.”
The homer gave the Nats a 4-1 lead at the time, but turned out to be the difference after closer Brad Hand held off a Cubs’ rally.
Soto was even feeling frisky enough to try stealing second after his single in the eighth, but Cubs’ catcher Willson Contreras threw him out.
“I just tried to get in scoring position, tried to get some more runs,” said Soto. “They just make a perfect throw and a perfect tag.”
Martinez didn’t seem to mind.
“Yeah, he was just being aggressive,” said Martinez. “It was close, if he throws the ball up he’s safe, Willson just made a good throw.”