Teams can pitch around Juan Soto, but the Washington Nationals’ right fielder makes pitchers pay dearly for leaving the ball over the plate.
Soto saw four pitches in the strike zone against the Miami Marlins on Wednesday, took three swings, reached base five times, and powered the Nats to a 7-5 victory.
“They’ve been attacking me, and throwing pitches in the strike zone, and trying to [get] me out, and I think that helped me out a little bit, just to not think they’re going to walk me every time,” Soto told reporters afterward.
“Just keeps me locked in every time I’m at the plate, just keep being aggressive.”
With a double, a two-run homer, and an RBI single in three at-bats, plus a race home from first with a decisive run, the Nats’ 22-year-old superstar surged to the lead in the National League batting race and cranked up the MVP buzz.
His big night helped Josiah Gray, acquired in the Max Scherzer-Trea Turner deadline trade, earn his first major league win, and by taking his major league-leading 129th and 130th walks of the season, Soto also tied Bryce Harper’s team record for free passes in a season, set in 2018.
“I’ve seen him now for three years, continue to do the same thing over and over, and he’s actually getting better, which is scary,” manager Davey Martinez told reporters afterward.
“He just — he knows the balls he wants to swing at, he’s ready to hit them, and when he gets them, he smokes them.”
Soto barreled up every mistake Marlins’ pitchers made, starting in the first inning. With two out and nobody on, the Marlins’ starter Elieser Hernandez found out what it’s like to play with fire.
After watching a high fastball, Soto took a letter-high slider for strike one, the only ball he would let go through the zone all night.
The next pitch, a 91-mph, four-seam fastball, was right over the heart of the plate, and Soto drove it to the gap in right-center for a stand-up double to extend a modest hitting streak to eight games.
After Yadiel Hernández’s second-inning homer, Soto came up in the third with one out, and Alcides Escobar on first.
The first pitch from the Marlins’ Hernandez was a 79-mph slider that hung over the inside part of the plate.
The lefty slugger did not miss, launching a laser shot to the right-field stands for a 3-0 lead.
In the fifth inning, with nobody out and Escobar again on first, Soto walked on five pitches, although none was close to the strike zone.
Soto took the third pitch in the sequence, an outside, 90-mph four-seamer, but home plate umpire Bill Miller called it a strike.
Soto came up in the seventh, with nobody out and runners on first and second, another another time the Marlins might have wanted to walk him.
Miami right-hander Zach Thompson was trying to go low, but his 1-0 change-up hung over the lower third of the plate, thigh-high, and Soto hammered it to left-center for a single that brought home Lane Thomas, for Soto’s 90th RBI of the season.
Three swings. Three hits. Three RBIs. Seven Bases.
But Soto wasn’t done.
After Josh Bell’s sac fly scored Escobar to make it 6-2, Soto was still on first when Hernández lined a ball to left against an over-shifted defense, and Marlins’ left-fielder Lewis Brinson couldn’t pick up the ball.
Running hard from the start, Soto rounded third just before Brinson got the throw off, but it was offline as Soto dove headfirst across the plate to make it 7-2.
“Nothing really surprises me with him, because he’s a student of the game, he always wants to get better,” said Martinez. “He’s very intuitive when it comes to the baserunning now.... but he’s always playing heads-up baseball.”
With two outs and a man on in the eighth, the Marlins finally succeeded in walking Soto on four pitches, when manager Don Mattingly held up four fingers and Soto took an intentional walk to tie the team record Harper set in 2018.
Soto’s perfect night at the plate lifted his average to an NL-leading .321, ahead of the Dodgers’ Trea Turner, who began the night at .318.
Philadelphia’s Bryce Harper finished his night in third place at .314.
In addition to leading the batting race, Soto has the best on-base percentage in baseball at .466, 35 points better than Harper’s .431.
His OPS of 1.010 is second in baseball behind Harper’s 1.051.
Soto said he told first base coach Randy Knorr he wanted to get his OPS over 1.000 because it showcases his combination of skills.
“I think that’s what I’m more proud of and I’m finally there, so I just got to keep it there,” said Soto.
No matter how the stats races come out, Soto is enjoying them.
“It feels really good, like I said, after that slow start and just come from the bottom and come all the way up,” Soto said. “We’re going to see at the end of the day how it goes.”
Soto’s surge at the plate has Martinez making the case that his superstar should be the National League’s most valuable player, despite playing on a fourth- or fifth-place team.
“He’s a player that’s having an unbelievable year, it’s not if you see — it’s the most valuable player, it’s one player,” said Martinez.
“For me, Juan should have consideration of being that MVP. He’s had a phenomenal year, he’s chasing a batting title, but what he’s done and what he’s meant to this team, as you know, he carries this team day in and day out, so he means a lot to this club.”