They don’t have a division race or even a postseason push to follow in the nation’s capital this year, so Washington Nationals fans will spend the final week of the 2021 season cheering for Juan Soto to win the National League batting title.
With one week to play in the regular season, Soto is neck and neck with former Nationals’ teammate Trea Turner, (traded to the the Los Angeles Dodgers), after a rare hitless day in the Nats’ 9-2 loss in Cincinnati.
Soto’s average stood at .322 after he went 0-for-3 against the Reds, although Tyler Mahle did issue Soto his major league-leading 138th walk of the season to lead off the sixth inning. Soto was eventually stranded at first base.
Soto flew out to left, in the first, popped up to first base in the third, and hit into a fielder’s choice in the eighth, but was erased on Josh Bell’s ensuing double-play ball. It was Soto’s second 0-for in his past three games, but only his sixth this month.
In the past 26 days, Soto has collected a league-leading 36 hits, including seven of his 29 home runs to raise his average from .302 to .322.
For Nationals’ manager Davey Martinez, Soto’s run toward the batting title has the added benefit of showcasing Soto’s leadership with his teammates, many of whom are less experienced than the 22-year-old superstar.
“You know what, he’s kind of a quiet leader, but whenever he wants to have a conversation, he’ll go up to a certain individual and talk about different things,“ Martinez said before Sunday’s game. “A lot of guys, these young guys, they’ve been watching him hit, they’ve been asking him questions throughout the game. They sit back and they watch videos. I’ve seen him watch a lot of videos with Luis [Garcia], talking about pitch selection and what he feels like the guys are going to do.”
Martinez said he doesn’t expect him to carry the team, but the only remaining starting position player from the 2019 World Series champions is captivating his teammates with his stellar second half and torrid September.
“For me, you never talk about leadership. That comes with him, and that’s something what I did talk to him about.
“I said that ‘You can see that we’re getting younger, you’re a guy that’s been here, you know how to win, we’ve been here, we’ve won, so this is your time to teach, and this is kind of almost your team now, with [Ryan Zimmerman] being the guy, but you got to take that responsibility. And he said he’s good, but I told him, I said, ‘don’t try to pressure yourself to try to be that guy, just be a guy,’ and I said all along your teammates will appreciate you just going out there and playing hard like you always do.
“But I said, they’re going to watch you, believe me, they’re going to watch you and they’re going to learn, and they have done that.”
Soto will play three of his final six games against the Rockies at Colorado’s hitter-friendly Coors Field, although Soto’s career line there, .238/.407/.571 in 2018 and 2019, doesn’t reflect most hitters’ success with the park’s altitude and spacious outfield.
Soto hasn’t played in Coors Field since April of the Nats’ World Series-winning season, but at this year’s 2021 All-Star Home Run Derby at the Denver ballpark, Soto set a record with a 520-foot home run in a round where he defeated AL MVP candidate Shohei Ohtani. He walked twice in two plate appearance in the All-Star Game.