If opposing pitchers are going to keep walking Juan Soto, the Washington Nationals’ top hitter just might wind up elbowing his way to the National League batting title.
And as Soto showed Friday night against the Colorado Rockies, he will still do his best to beat them with every tool at his disposal, even a base-path version of the Soto Shuffle.
Soto was 1-for-2 with three walks in a 9-8 loss to the Rockies, but he might have done his best work of the night after drawing a four-pitch walk to load the bases in the eighth inning, with the score tied at 7-7.
Josh Bell followed with a roller to second baseman Brendan Rodgers that could have been an inning-ending double play, but Soto saw a chance to use his momentum.
A little inertia helped as he shuffled to a standing stop to draw Rodgers toward him for a tag.
Soto stopped, but his right arm kept moving a little. Rodgers was clearly jostled aside by the contact, and his throw to first was too late to get Bell. The play scored Lane Thomas, who had walked, for a go-ahead run.
Soto was out anyway, but by using his head, and maybe his elbow, he gave the Nats a short-lived lead, and he enjoyed talking about it in the dugout.
“He ran, he tried to back up, and then he froze,” manager Davey Martinez told reporters. “If somebody is going to tag you, you want to put your hands up to protect yourself anyway, and that’s what I saw.
“I didn’t see him try — if he would have swung with his elbow, that would have been a different story, I didn’t see him do that.”
The Nationals may have forgone a division or pennant race this year to build for the future, but fans in the nation’s capital can still cheer for hometown hero Soto to win the National League batting championship, in a race that includes former Nationals Trea Turner and Bryce Harper.
Opposing teams have decided not to let Soto beat them at the plate, walking him a major-league high 123 times this season. But if they keep issuing Soto free passes, they’ll also keep him in the thick of both the race.
Soto’s .315 average following Friday’s games is tied with Houston’s Michael Brantley for fourth amongst all qualifying MLB batters.
Oakland’s Starling Marte and Toronto’s Vladimir Guerrero Jr. are tied for first at .318.
In the NL race, the Dodgers’ Turner is two points ahead of Soto at .318, and Philadelphia’s Harper is two points behind Soto at .313.
Washington hasn’t produced a full-season batting champion since Mickey Vernon won the American League batting title in 1953, although Soto did have the NL’s top average after the 60-game 2020 season at .351.
The Nats have come close to producing a full-season champ a couple times.
In 2015, Harper fished three points behind the .333 average of Miami’s Dee Gordon.
The next season, Colorado’s DJ LeMahieu sat on the bench in the final game with an NL-high .348 average, while the Nats’ Daniel Murphy came to the plate as a pinch hitter with a chance to move ahead but flew out to right field and finished at .347.
In the race for the 2021 NL crown, Harper’s 79 are the closest to Soto’s total for free passes.
The Nationals’ tendency for long, high-scoring games means Soto will have plenty of plate appearances over the season’s final two weeks. Soto’s elite plate discipline and the success teams have had with walking him ensure he’ll have plenty more.
If Soto can make the most of the few decent pitches he sees in the season’s final games, the Nationals could have a full-season batting champion.
“Soto, he is continuing to do what he does. And not only is he playing to help us win games, but statistically-wise, he’s playing to win another batting title, and I would love for him to do that,” Martinez said before last night’s game.
That’s some consolation for fans who can still remember division championships and a World Series title.