Soto, Nats looking for answers amid hitting slump

May 22nd, 2022

MILWAUKEE -- When a Nationals lineup constructed for power delivers only nine runs in its past five games, it's easy to look at the heart of the order that includes sluggers Juan Soto, Nelson Cruz and Josh Bell for answers: When will the offense get hot? When will the home runs start flying out of the park again? What is the key for a turnaround?

Following a 5-1 loss to the Brewers on Saturday night at American Family Field, the players involved are wondering the same thing. 

“It’s pretty tough,” said Soto. “We’ve been trying really hard. We even got around nine, 10 hits and we just scored one run. It’s pretty tough. Everybody’s trying their best and we’ve just got to get a clutch hit and I think we’re going to be fine.”

Since taking a commanding 13-6 win over the Astros on May 14, the Nationals have been outscored, 37-9, in the six following games. This span includes two shutouts and only one home run -- a solo shot by Lane Thomas on Saturday.

It also coincides with All-Star slugger Soto going 2-for-20 with four walks during this stretch. 

“I’ve been feeling kind of weird,” said Soto, who went 0-for-3 on Saturday. “I’ve been working a lot on my swing, trying to figure out what’s going on. It’s pretty tough to get back [to] where I was. I’ve been watching my videos and all that stuff, but it is what it is. Right now, I’ve just been up and down. Sometimes I feel good, sometimes I feel weird. But it is what it is.”

Manager Dave Martinez and his coaching staff have been stressing the value of simplicity to Soto and the Nationals’ hitters amid the struggles. Trying to force a solution can lead to overcomplicating the approach, when simplifying it can be the best path. 

“Just try to forget about the results and keep it simple and keep it in one way, try to play baseball, try to enjoy it and see what’s going on,” Soto, 23, emphasized.

Success doesn’t have to be reliant on belting balls out of the park, even for a team stacked with heavy hitters. Efficient sequences of at-bats can yield plenty of positive results, too. 

“Obviously, it would be nice for César to lead off the game with a homer every night and we could just feed off that,” Bell said. “But the game’s tough, and I would say stringing hits together definitely would be good for this squad. That’s how we’re going to win games.” 

Take that decisive win over the Astros last weekend, as an example, in which Cruz’s bases-clearing double was set up by a single by Dee Strange-Gordon, a bunt from Victor Robles, a sacrifice bunt from César Hernández and a walk by Soto. 

But in a loss on Friday, when Robles, Alcides Escobar and Hernández made three consecutive bunt attempts in what turned out to be a 1-2-3 inning, the results weren’t there. 

“They’re trying excessively hard to do things, to get on base and create something,” Martinez said. “So once again, for me, sometimes less is more and just play the game, go out there and have fun.”

For all the questions about the offensive production, the answers can come over time with consistency, batter by batter. It takes young players, including Soto navigating through struggles and veterans like Cruz returning to the methods that achieved success in the past. 

All while keeping it simple. 

“I think it’s just understanding that the guy on the mound is good,” Bell said. “If you try to do too much, it plays into their hand, for the most part. So if you’re trying to keep things simple, good things happen.”