How did Zack Wheeler react to the stares Juan Soto shot his way, after the Washington Nationals’ slugger took the Philadelphia Phillies’ pitcher deep to left-center in the sixth inning of Friday night’s series opener in Citizens Bank Park.
“I didn’t notice it,” Wheeler told reporters in his post game Zoom call. “I could care less.”
He couldn’t care less, of course, but will a pitcher one day? We know the Atlanta Braves’ Will Smith didn’t love Soto’s antics in 2020’s 60-game campaign, when the reliever told Soto to get out from behind the plate where Soto was watching the pitcher warm up, and Soto later took him deep in that game.
Soto has been shuffling, gesturing towards the mound, and enjoying himself at the plate for pretty much his whole time in the majors, so maybe everyone is just used to it at this point.
Juan Soto appeared to stare down Wheeler a bit right after he hit his home run and a couple looks back to him after he touched home plate. Not sure if there's some sort of beef there. pic.twitter.com/QJ4ecBAly0— Blake Finney (@FinneyBlake) June 5, 2021
Both Soto and Nationals’ manager Davey Martinez said after Friday night’s game that it was just the 22-year-old slugger being competitive when he shot hard glances Wheeler’s way.
”Just being competitive,” Soto explained. “I like to be competitive. I look at [Phillies’ catcher] J.T. [Realmuto] too. We always talk about — I tell him before the at bat, I just said, ‘Hey, J.T. two points, Soto zero, so we will see now.’ And I think it’s going my way, I ended up losing against J.T., but it feels great.
“I don’t know Wheeler, we’re just competitive. We go out there and try to do our best. I don’t care if they strike me out, pump, hit their chest, jump, do whatever, do a backflip whatever, I don’t care, but let me enjoy my homer.”
“That’s just the competitiveness in Juan,” Martinez added. “He knows [Wheeler is] a good pitcher. And as you know he gets in that moment.”
Is there any concern that, as in the situation with the Braves’ reliever, some pitcher at some point isn’t going to just dismiss Soto’s antics?
Is it something the manager discusses with his outfielder?
“You know what we talk about it,” Martinez said before Saturday’s game, “but this day and age, you watch pitchers do all kinds of stuff after they strike him out, and like I said, for me, if you know Juan, and I’m really starting to believe that the pitchers do know him and they know how much he loves to compete, and he tries to just have fun, and some of these antics it’s purely fun, and like I said, competitive, and I think they get it. He doesn’t mind — and he says it all the time, when a pitcher strikes him out and they do whatever they want to do, it doesn’t seem to bother him, it makes him want to get up there that much faster and compete, you know, and he thinks of it as just being part of the game.”
Has Martinez ever considered it from a pitcher’s perspective?
“Honestly, if I was a pitcher I’d want to get him out,” the skipper said.
“That’s what I’m thinking about. I want to get him out whether it’s a strikeout or whatever, I want to get him out. Because he’s a good hitter. He’s probably one of the best young hitters in the league, if not in all of baseball. So if I’m a pitcher I’m thinking to myself, ‘Hey, I got a big task at hand, I want to try to get this guy out.’”
In recent weeks at least, after Soto slumped for a while after returning from a left shoulder issue which landed him on the IL, it hasn’t been easy to get him out.
With his 1 for 4 night against the Phillies on Friday, Soto was 6 for 15 (.400/.571/1.000) with three home runs, six walks, and four Ks in 21 plate appearances through five games on the current road trip. Soto had hit three of his seven home runs total on the year in his last 17 PAs, after he hit four in 167 PAs in his first 40 games and 167 PAs this season. Soto said that he picked up momentum in Atlanta, and that’s carried over to Philadelphia.
“I really feel a little bit better at the plate, more confidence, and I’m seeing the ball travel a little bit better,” Soto explained. “I just feel great. All those balls I hit, not even the homers, even the fly ball I hit to center field, it feels amazing down there, so I think it got me a little bit better to come to this series.”
Martinez, who played 16 seasons in the majors, then transitioned to coaching and managing eventually, said that when he was in the big leagues, it was a different time, so there was not a whole lot of bat flipping and staring going on those days.
“We had guys who had their own little antics,” Martinez said. “They did crazy stuff. I can tell you though, as you know, back in the early 80s and stuff it was frowned upon. The guys that were going to hit 35-40 home runs, whatever, those guys — you do it that many times — but for a guy like me who hit eight or nine home runs, [if I] did a bat flip, things might have got interesting.”
So Martinez didn’t bat flip?
“No,” he said. “Actually, when I hit them it wasn’t like a no-doubter. It was like, ‘Hey, you better run, because that ball might hit the wall.’”