Soto sparks Nats' W: 'He changes the game'

July 19th, 2021

WASHINGTON -- thought maybe, just maybe, competing in the T-Mobile Home Run Derby during the 2021 All-Star Game festivities this past week could help him establish his swing for the second half of the season. If he could get into a rhythm at Coors Field in Denver, perhaps he could take it back with him to Nationals Park.

It looks like that strategy has worked.

After going yard twice in his first game back from the break on Friday, Soto belted a two-run home run in the eighth inning on Sunday in the Nationals’ 8-7 walk-off win over the Padres. His home run total for the season stands at 14.

“I just feel so much better now,” Soto said. “I was thinking about it, and it really helped me a little bit get that feeling of how to put the ball in the air and everything. I tried everything I could in the first half, and the ball still was going to the ground. … I think the Derby helped me out big time.”

Soto hit .283 in the first half of the season, during which he searched for the power-hitting momentum he exuded last year when he became the youngest player to win the National League batting title. In the three games following the break, he is 7-for-13 with six RBIs and five runs scored.

“It’s just kind of impressive, though, because I didn’t realize how quickly it was going to help me out,” Soto said. “To see those homers in this series, it was great for me.”

Soto entered the Derby last Monday as the eighth-seeded underdog with 11 home runs in the first half of the season. He threw all rankings aside when he rocked a record-setting 520-foot blast. into the Denver air. A memorable first-round battle against the Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani resulted in a one-minute tiebreaker and a three-swing swing off, which Soto won to move on to the next round, where he fell to champion Pete Alonso of the Mets.

“I do believe him going to the All-Star Game and doing the Home Run Derby did help him understand really what he needs to do,” manager Dave Martinez said. “Because if you watched him in the Home Run Derby, he didn’t try to pull a whole lot of balls. He hit a lot of balls to center field, he hit some to left-center -- and that’s who he is.”

Though Soto’s Statcast-projected 362-foot home run on Sunday didn’t fly as far as the rockets he hit into the thin Denver air, it’s not the distance the Nationals are focused on. It’s the fact that the hits are leaving the park.

“We just need him to hit it a couple rows deep,” starting pitcher said. “If we get him hot, that just changes everything. When he’s hot, he can absolutely carry us. He changes the game in so many different ways, whether you pitch to him or not. When he goes, that makes our offense really go.”

Soto’s dinger followed a solo homer by earlier in the inning -- his first in the Majors since Aug. 11, 2018 -- which set the tone for a late-game comeback. After closer allowed the Padres to even the score at 7 in the ninth, Escobar hit a walk-off RBI single to deep center field off Mark Melancon to give the Nats their fifth walk-off victory of the season and the win in the series finale.

“It was amazing,” Soto said. “When he hit the homer, too, it was impressive how hard he hit the ball. … I just feel happy for him, and I hope he keeps going.”