Washington Nationals manager Davey Martinez made a familiar move Sunday to help Juan Soto break out of his current funk — move him to the leadoff spot.
It's been a tried and true strategy for struggling sluggers on teams Martinez has coached or managed, and Martinez might have envisioned a similar jump start for Soto in what turned out to be a 3-0 loss to Milwaukee, the Nats’ fourth straight.
“The leadoff spot and the second spot, to me, we’ve had a lot of guys on base for those guys, “ Martinez explained in his post game Zoom call with reporters. “So I wanted Juan just to move him around.”
In 2017, when Martinez was bench coach of the Chicago Cubs, it worked like magic for Anthony Rizzo, who was hitting .227 through April and May before moving to the leadoff spot and hitting .320 for the month of June. Rizzo also broke a slump with the same strategy the next season.
The next season, when Martinez managed the Nationals, he moved a struggling Bryce Harper to the leadoff spot and got instant results with two homers, six RBI, and a stolen base over the next two games before his performance tailed off.
Soto, who had a .273/.390/.394 line heading into the game, is now hitless in three straight games and four of his last seven. After a .300/.410/.460 April, Soto is .247/.373/.341 with 17 walks in May.
“Before the game today, I said, ‘‘Hey, just go out there and have fun, take your walks, get a good pitch to hit, you’re leading off,’” said Martinez. “‘So hopefully you’ll get a good pitch to hit, and try to get on base and when the opportunity arises where you can get some guys on base, try to drive them in and just have fun and relax a little bit.’”
This is the second time Martinez has batted Soto leadoff. Coincidentally, the first was exactly three years prior, May 30, 2018, a few weeks into Soto’s meteoric rookie season. He went 1-for-4 with an RBI single in a 2-0 win over Baltimore. Also coincidentally, Max Scherzer started both games for the Nats.
Brandon Woodruff is turning out to be the ace of the Milwaukee staff, and Soto’s first at-bat against him went as well as he could hope, with a six-pitch walk.
After that, it went downhill — fast.
Trea Turner and Josh Bell struck out in rapid succession, and with Kyle Schwarber at the plate, Soto took off for second and looked like he might beat Omar Narváez’s throw. But third-baseman Travis Shaw, covering second in the shift, tagged Soto on the backside just before his fingers reached the base in a head-first slide.
After a groundout to lead off the fourth, Martinez’s strategy of having Soto at the plate with runners aboard was certainly in play, but Soto would never drive in those runs.
“He got caught up in a moment, that wasn’t good, he got frustrated.”
In the sixth, with Yadiel Hernadez on first following a walk, Soto faced off with Woodruff and home plate umpire Sam Holbrook — and lost to both — in one of the most contentious at-bats of Soto’s career.
Soto took two straight balls before Holbrook called a strike that apparently looked to Soto like it was outside. After another ball, Soto took a pitch that was farther off the plate than strike one, and Soto started down the line for first before Holbrook called a strike.
Soto backed out of the box and shook his head, and walked around a bit toward the backstop, muttering in frustration. Holbrook then turned around in response to some chatter from the Nats’ dugout and ejected Hitting coach Kevin Long, who appeared to be protecting Soto from his own ejection by yelling his disapproval amid profanities.
Soto than took a ball over the plate for strike three and fumed back to the dugout.
“The one thing I don’t want to happen, is have an umpire take them out of their at bats,” said Martinez.
“I’m sure that happened to Juan. I’m positive that happened to Juan, that all of a sudden, for whatever reason, Sam wanted to ring him up. It was only 3-1 at that point, and he rung him up like he wanted him out, and you could see it, it frustrated Juan a lot, and he just lost the at bat right there.”
Soto said Saturday that he’s still following Martinez’s mantra of being aggressive with balls in the strike zone.
“Right now yes, my strike zone has always been right there.“ he said. “I’ve been swinging at strikes the whole year, I feel good about it. I just got to start squaring up a couple more baseballs and see how far they land.”
In the eighth, Soto came up with Starlin Castro on first after a rare walk. This time, Soto swung at the first pitch and sent a ball straight to Kolten Wong at second for an easy out at first.
Soto finished 0-for-3 with a walk and two runners left on base.
Soto says the strategy for breaking out of the slump isn’t complicated.
“Just try to hit the ball a little bit out in front,” he said Saturday. “We know it’s a round ball, round bat, we’re just trying our best, try to get on top of the ball, and get that backspin going, that’s why everyone is trying to square up.
“It’s nothing crazy, just got to try to get on top of the ball and let it drive.”
Martinez believes that plan will work.
“We got to get him going, he’s hitting balls hard, he’s walking, now we just got to get him in the air a little bit and start having him drive the ball.”
Soto remains optimistic.
“Everything is going to change. It’s going to change,” he said.
“We’ve been hitting balls hard right at people, and I think that’s a good sign that everything is going to change. We all feel good, we all feel comfortable, and we’re all trying our best and I think our moment is going to come.”