Soto vs. Kolarek a postseason chess match

October 9th, 2019

WASHINGTON -- There stood . The entirety of his 6-foot-1 frame drifted directly behind home plate, hawk-eyeing every twitch and tinkering of the unusual delivery from his newfound rival.

And there stood , who uses the entirety of his 6-foot-3 frame to his advantage. Up to this point, the 30-year-old side-armed southpaw has lived his three-year big league career on the periphery.

Now, here both of them stand, as one of the come-from-nowhere matchups born only because of the circumstances they find themselves -- the midst of a postseason chess match.

“These are our first experiences in the Major League playoffs, and it’s not just a normal three-game series,” Kolarek said. “Playoffs allow for these sorts of battles to happen.”

The Dodgers have had a clear plan for handling Soto -- someone their manager Dave Roberts lauds as one of the “top-five players in all of baseball” for his comprehension at the plate. When Soto is due up late in a game, Kolarek will enter for the sole purpose of getting him out before handing the ball off to the next reliever in line.

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“For me, it feels good because you know it’s giving you respect,” Soto said. “But I am going to get it one time.”

So far, all three installments belong to the pitcher -- a three-pitch strikeout the first meeting in Game 1, a nine-pitch groundout in the second game and a six-pitch strikeout in the third. (Kolarek even warmed to face Soto in the third inning of Game 4, but Roberts elected to remain with his starter.)

“They have been good cat-and-mouse and good battles,” Roberts said. “Having a guy like Adam to deploy against Soto certainly is a nice something to have in your back pocket.”

Game 1

The scenario: Bases empty, Dodgers leading 2-0 in the top of the seventh

The outcome: Three-pitch strikeout

Soto said he doesn’t enjoy facing side-armed sinkerballers, even though his .365 batting average this season against sinkers -- ranking 21st of 137 hitters with at least 75 at-bats against them -- may refute that claim. But Soto has struggled at balls low and inside, batting just .241 against pitches in that area this season.

Kolarek needed just three sinkers for the out, none of which reached 91 mph. Soto fouled off the first and swung through the next two.

“It’s kind of like best vs. best there,” Kolarek said. “He’s trying to put his best swing on my best pitch.”

Game 2

The scenario: Two men on, Nationals leading 3-1 in the top of the seventh

The outcome: Nine-pitch groundout

Here, the bread and butter of each respective player came to light.

Soto, with his acute awareness at the plate, learned to lay off two of Kolarek’s inside sinkers and foul off five more. Kolarek, who owns a Major League-best 76.8 percent ground ball rate against lefties this season (including the postseason), was able to induce another to record the pivotal second out of the inning.

“It’s tough to see the ball against him,” Soto said. “If you take it, the umpire is going to call it because the ball looks like it’s going to be out of the zone, and then it’s a late drop. The umpires get confused, too, so you have to swing the bat.”

Game 3

The scenario: Bases empty, Dodgers leading 8-4 in the eighth

The outcome: Six-pitch strikeout on a foul tip

Might Soto be adjusting? He laid off four pitches he didn’t like -- one of which was a called strike outside the zone -- and awaited his pitch to hit, which he just missed to strike out on a foul tip.

At the very least, it could be a sign that Soto's seeing Kolarek’s down-and-in pitches better. His raised awareness forced the southpaw to deviate from the sinker the lone time he has all series and utilize his slider.

Game 5?

So now here stands Soto-Kolarek, a matchup magnified at this time of year, and one that could very well play a role during Wednesday’s Game 5 in Los Angeles. The Dodgers retain full confidence in their Trade Deadline acquisition, the one who owns an 0.71 ERA (including the postseason) since joining the club, to be their guy.

But the Nationals equally retain as much confidence in their 20-year-old phenom, who has shown the Majors just how quickly he can adapt at the game’s highest level.

“The more he sees him,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said, “the tide will turn. Soto's a good hitter, he usually figures things out.”