Soto saw it coming: 'I know he's in trouble'

Nats' 20-year-old phenom delivers in clutch spot vs. Hader

October 3rd, 2019

WASHINGTON -- was caught in a rundown, about to get tagged out in between second and third, but he did not care. He clapped his hands, ripped off his helmet and pounded his chest, punching the air as he screamed toward the Nationals' dugout. The sold-out crowd of 42,993 fans at Nationals Park joined him, letting out a cathartic cheer they had been waiting to unleash, not just all night, but really for years.

The Nationals are headed to Los Angeles for the start of the National League Division Series on Thursday, thanks to the biggest hit of Soto's young career, a two-run single with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth inning against Brewers closer Josh Hader that rolled under the glove of right fielder Trent Grisham. Soto stayed in the rundown long enough for the third run to score, flipping a two-run deficit into a 4-3 Nats lead in their eventual one-run victory over the Brewers in Tuesday's NL Wild Card Game in a star-making moment for Washington's youngest player.

Playing in his first career postseason game, Soto collected the biggest hit of the night against Hader, who had struck out 34 batters and allowed just nine hits in 63 at-bats against lefties this season.

“I know he's in trouble,” Soto said. “He's going to try to attack me with his fastball up and the slider. I mean, I just step in there and try to hit the ball and single to the middle.”

Such is the approach of one of baseball's youngest and most advanced hitters. After completing perhaps the greatest teenage season in MLB history last year, Soto followed it up with an even better sophomore season at age 20. Soto will turn 21 on Oct. 25, and he has all the making of a generational star, in part because of the ability to come through in moments like this one.

Soto fouled off a high fastball from Hader to start the at-bat, then he laid off a slider on the next pitch. And when Hader went back to a fastball in the same spot as before, Soto did not miss.

“We had been pounding him up in the zone, and he was able to get barrel on ball,” Brewers catcher Yasmani Grandal said. “That guy is going to have a great career, and he's shown it this year. He's only 20 years old and teams are pretty much doing their scouting report around him.”

Teams have been game-planning to slow Soto since he arrived in May 2018 and took the league by storm en route to finishing second in the NL Rookie of the Year Award voting. Pitchers began the year by pounding Soto with a steady diet of breaking balls; he adjusted and started hitting those. He struggled when he was asked to play left field for the first time in his life last year after getting called up, but he vastly improved in '19. After playing in more games than ever this season, Soto slumped during the final month, until he started to break out of that too.

The Nationals all marvel at his ability to make adjustments and his advanced plate discipline, which few hitters at any age possess. Let alone a 20-year-old.

“Nothing Soto ever does surprises me,” Nats catcher Kurt Suzuki said. “This kid's unbelievable. He's a joy to be around. One of the most humble kids I've ever been around. He's a superstar, man. This guy's a superstar. This guy's 20 years old. I was in college at 20 years old. This guy's hitting 30 [homers] and 100 [RBIs] in the big leagues at 20 years old, playing in the postseason. He's a joke.”

Moments after collecting the biggest moment of his career, Soto was on the field celebrating when his father, Juan Jose Soto, gave him a celebratory tackle from behind, embracing his son all the way to the ground without letting go. A few family members have been in town this week from the Dominican Republic, and they spent the weekend touring the D.C. monuments. His mother made Soto a home-cooked meal before the game.

And then Soto basked in the moment after the biggest hit of his career. He saluted the fans in left field before the start of the ninth inning. He danced as his teammates threw champagne and beer on him in the clubhouse after the game. The Nationals have been waiting for a moment like this one and a star like this one, to help erase the bad taste lingering from so many postseason losses here.

“He's done it all year for us,” manager Dave Martinez said. “That's why he's a cleanup hitter. He makes good at-bats, and he comes through when we need him to come through. He's been unbelievable all year for us.”