LOS ANGELES -- The Nationals frustrated Clayton Kershaw in more ways than one during their 4-2 win in Game 2 of the National League Division Series on Friday at Dodger Stadium.
After tagging Kershaw for three runs over the first two innings, the Nationals also managed to neutralize the Dodgers left-hander at the plate with an outstanding diving catch from left fielder Juan Soto.
With two outs in the third inning and the Nationals holding a 3-0 lead, Kershaw shot a laser line drive into left field, which had an expected batting average of .970. But Soto got an amazing jump (10.6 feet above average) on the ball and ran 39 feet in just 2.9 seconds for a five-star catch. The grab had just a 10 percent catch probability, according to Statcast.
“For me, it was really exciting,” Soto said in Spanish. “I trusted my instincts, and thankfully, it worked out.”
The improbable play was emblematic of the significant strides the 20-year-old outfielder has made in his left-field defense since making his Major League debut last season. Primarily a right fielder in the Minors, Soto was asked to shift to left after being promoted by the Nationals last May, forcing him to quickly acclimate himself to a position where he had minimal professional experience.
The defensive metrics didn't rate Soto very favorably in 2018, motivating the budding young star to focus on rectifying his fielding deficiencies this season. He worked with third-base coach Bobby Henley to quicken his first step and practiced getting better reads on balls off the bat. He sought out advice from more experienced outfielders, including manager Dave Martínez and veteran Gerardo Parra. As he grew more comfortable with left field, he began to gain confidence and learned to trust his instincts.
“He’s come a long way,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “You’re talking about a kid that works his butt off offensively, but I think his defense gets a little bit overlooked. He’s come such a long way in a short time, and he’s only going to continue to get better. Things like that, where he’s playing in with the pitcher up, those are things that four or five months ago never would have happened. It’s been fun to watch him mature, as well.”
Soto's efforts were ultimately rewarded, as he improved from minus-6 outs above average in 2018 to plus-6 in left field this year, according to Statcast. The growth came as no surprise to the Nationals, who have already become accustomed to seeing Soto consistently make adjustments that belie his young age.
"He's a very intense kid,” Martínez said earlier this week. "He loves to hit, he loves to play the game. Besides his hitting, he's gotten so much better in the outfield, it's unbelievable. I looked at his numbers at the end of the year, and he's probably one of the best left fielders for sure in the National League, based on numbers, based on what I've seen. He's gotten a lot better."