WASHINGTON -- The Nationals slotted Bryce Harper into the leadoff spot for Thursday's game against the Orioles in an effort to help him see more pitches and draw more walks. It was a change manager Dave Martinez employed earlier this season, when he was trying to get Harper more opportunities
WASHINGTON -- The Nationals slotted Bryce Harper into the leadoff spot for Thursday's game against the Orioles in an effort to help him see more pitches and draw more walks. It was a change manager Dave Martinez employed earlier this season, when he was trying to get Harper more opportunities to hit to break out of a slump. Certainly, it was a move Martinez felt comfortable making, because he could slot rookie phenom Juan Soto into the cleanup spot without worry.
Soto responded -- as he continues to do during this impressive start to his career -- with a two-run double in the eighth inning to break a tie game and lead the Nationals to a 4-2 victory over the Orioles at Nationals Park. Even as Washington continues to throw new challenges at Soto, 19, he continues to excel at them all.
"He's got unbelievable poise," Martinez said. "No matter what the situation is."
The table was set for Soto's double thanks to a leadoff two-bagger from Harper that capped off one of his most productive nights at the plate in weeks. Harper went 1-for-1 with a pair of walks, a sacrifice fly and scored the go-ahead run.
This was a major positive for Harper, who has especially struggled in his past nine games, going 2-for-32 with nine strikeouts and four walks. Still, after the game he maintained he has been feeling great at the plate despite his struggles.
"My swing has felt great," Harper reiterated. "I've felt great the past month and a half or so, just chasing pitches. Trying to get a pitch over the plate that I can drive and do the things that I can to put the bat on the ball -- and not just 'pitcher pitches down and away, or up and in,' or anything like that. Tonight, I tried to do the best I could to get a ball over the middle [of the plate], and I was able to do that."
It was a positive breakthrough for the Nationals' offense, which has struggled to consistently score runs lately. Harper's sac fly and Anthony Rendon's solo homer were the only runs they scored against Orioles right-hander Kevin Gausman, who gave up two runs in six innings.
But that was enough for Max Scherzer, who was not his usual dominant self, but good enough to withstand some early hard contact from Orioles hitters. He surrendered a pair of home runs -- solo shots from both Colby Rasmus and Mark Trumbo -- to mark the first time this season he has surrendered multiple homers in an outing. Scherzer still responded to hold Baltimore to two runs over seven innings with nine strikeouts.
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"Hey, we won the ballgame," Scherzer said. "That's what matters. That's my job as the starting pitcher: Pitch deep in the game, give my team a chance to win. Two solo home runs, turn the page. Move on from it and continue to pitch."
Soto's game-winning double came on a ball he drove to left field, another clutch hit for him going the opposite way. He entered this game batting 12-for-21 with an MLB-best 1.190 slugging percentage when hitting to the opposite field, a clear strength for him early on.
"I always hit it to the other way," Soto said. "I like to hit it there. It's better for me. I can see the ball better when I hit it over there."
HE SAID IT
"I think we're all amazed every single day. He's got some antics. He's got some flair. He's a great young player. He's just enjoying himself. He's the bat we kind of need in our lineup right now, that's hot. And teams are going to have to figure out how to get him out, because it's tough right now. He's really locked into what he wants to do. And every time he steps to the plate, he competes. And he takes his walks. He understands, he has a great feel for the strike zone that he doesn't expand as much as you would think for a young guy. To have that type of eye, it's remarkable for him to be able to do that at this time, at this age and at this level." -- Scherzer, on Soto
The Nationals will begin a three-game series with the Phillies on Friday night at 7:05 p.m. ET, with right-hander Tanner Roark set to take the mound at Nationals Park. He is trying to bounce back from his shortest outing of the season, a four-inning start against the Blue Jays. Right-hander Zach Eflin will be the opposing pitcher for Philadelphia.
Jamal Collier has covered the Nationals for MLB.com since 2016. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.