World is about to meet Nats' 20-year-old phenom

Fall Classic stage is a perfect platform for Soto's talents

October 22nd, 2019

HOUSTON -- It’s the night of Game 3 of the National League Championship Series and is not happy.

His swing is betraying him. His timing is off, and he feels too far out in front of every pitch. In the dugout, he confers with hitting coach Kevin Long, who tells him his hips are too quick. Normally, it’s an issue Soto can correct with the help of resistance-band workouts.

But this is the postseason. There’s no time to mess around. It’s time to do something Soto has never done in his short big league career -- an extra round of batting practice postgame, even after a game in which the Nationals took a commanding 3-0 series lead on the way to sweeping the Cardinals.

“I was thinking, hey man, we gotta do something new,” Soto said Monday afternoon on the eve of his first World Series appearance. “Because I feel off balance hitting the ball.”

It did not take long for Soto to find his stroke -- 10-15 minutes max, Long estimates, in a session focused on getting Soto back to what he does best, driving the ball to the opposite field.

The Cardinals peppered him with offspeed pitches and Soto began the NLCS 1-for-12 with one walk and seven strikeouts in the first three games. So Long and Soto headed into the batting cage just beyond the home dugout steps at Nationals Park, determined to get him back on the fastball. With each soft toss from Long and each flip in the cage, Soto focused on his contact point, letting the ball travel further and further in on home plate before swinging.

The payoff came quickly. In his first at-bat of Game 4, Soto crushed a double, tracked by Statcast at 100.6 mph off the bat, to left field to drive in a run. His second at-bat was a 350-foot flyout. He crushed the ball again in his next at-bat, a 107.3 mph line drive that was caught in center field. And he finished the night with a single against lefty Andrew Miller, going 2-for-4 with an RBI to help the Nats clinch the pennant.

“Those were four of the best at-bats he might have had all year,” Long said.

This is what the Nationals rave about most with Soto, the ability to make adjustments swiftly and decisively and apply them on the field. For a player who hit .282/.401/.548 with 34 homers and a 142 wRC+, the seventh best in the NL, Soto’s best at-bats are some of the best at-bats anywhere in all of baseball. This batting-practice session helped Soto get back on track at the plate, something the Nationals hope will carry over in the Fall Classic.

“The next day was amazing,” Soto said. “I felt right away the difference. My swing was right there.”

With that swing, every time he steps into the box during this World Series, Soto will either be making history or have a chance to do so. He was slated to bat fourth in the Nationals’ lineup for Tuesday's Game 1, making him the third-youngest player in history to start a World Series game in the cleanup spot, behind only Miguel Cabrera (2003) and Ty Cobb (1907). His 21st birthday is on Friday, when the Series resumes at Nationals Park for Game 3.

And yet, Soto never shies away from these moments. He still does his customary “Soto shuffle” before at-bats, and he handles questions at media day in English, his second language.

And he’s kept his smile and confidence along the way, all while producing like one of the best players in baseball with some of the biggest hits for the Nats this postseason -- the game-winning single off Josh Hader in the NL Wild Card Game and the game-tying homer off Clayton Kershaw in NLDS Game 5.

“I just think it's a fight, just the pitcher and me,” Soto said. “I forget about everybody that's around me. I just think of the pitcher and me and look for one pitch and get my confidence like I've been doing all this stuff and try to enjoy the moment. I think that's the key.”

While the rest of the Nationals' clubhouse has showered themselves in beer and champagne during celebrations this month, Soto has carried his own personal beverage: a few bottles of Welch’s Sparkling Grape juice.

The thought brought second baseman Brian Dozier back to a moment earlier in the season on May 15, Dozier’s 32nd birthday. Soto wished Dozier a happy birthday and asked what he was up to that night. Dozier hadn’t nailed down his plans, but he invited Soto out for a drink to celebrate, only to find out his new teammate had still not reached the legal drinking age.

“I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” Dozier recalled. “I did not know he was 20. I thought like 22-23, whatever, this young guy. … I was slapping singles in college when I was his age, and this guy’s doing what he’s doing. So that was kind of the ‘holy crap, this guy’s special.’”

The World Series presents a chance for Soto to show the world what the Nationals already know: just how special Soto truly is.

Perhaps Soto knew all along he would end up on this stage. He’s been predicting this matchup when talking to his friend, Astros catcher Robinson Chirinos, for months. The two developed a friendship during the Japan All-Star Series last winter, when Soto and his father (also named Juan Jose Soto) spent time with Chirinos and his son, David, going to dinner together after games.

About two months ago, maybe as early as July, Soto told Chirinos to be ready for a Washington-Houston World Series. Chirinos sent Soto a text after his hit to win the NL Wild Card Game, and Soto responded in the same way: Washington vs. Houston in the World Series.

It's that same kind of assurance and confidence the Nationals have seen all along, the traits that have him poised to wow a nation in prime time this week.