Soto stuns Philly with game-winning 2-run blast

Corbin racks up 10 strikeouts across 6 frames, earns no-decision

July 14th, 2019

PHILADELPHIA -- Juan Soto stepped up for the Nationals on Saturday night -- both literally and figuratively.

With the Nats trailing by a run and down to their final out, Soto walked to the plate against Phillies closer Hector Neris and decided to try something different. Instead of taking his usual place at the back of the batter's box, Soto moved all the way to the front of the box.

The motive was simple -- Soto was expecting a splitter (a pitch that Neris throws 68 percent of the time), and he wanted to be able to jump on it high in the zone. Neris indeed delivered a first-pitch splitter, and Soto promptly sent it a projected 420 feet per Statcast to the opposite field for a go-ahead two-run homer in the Nationals' 4-3 victory at Citizens Bank Park.

"He hung it and he threw it right down the middle," Soto said. "For me, I just made an adjustment. I stepped to the front of the box, to hit in the front part of the box, and was just looking for that one. Maybe that’s why I saw it a bit more hanging, and just hit it."

Not bad for a guy who won't celebrate his 21st birthday until October, making him the third-youngest active hitter in the big leagues (only Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Fernando Tatis Jr. are younger).

"I can’t say enough about him," manager Dave Martinez said. "Being 20, and doing the things that he does, constantly wanting to learn more and more every day; I’m just glad that he’s on our team. I really am."

The fact that Soto's latest revelation came at a pivotal moment in a road game against a division rival is also nothing new for the youngster -- and no opposing team knows that better than the Phillies.

If Soto's game-winning homer felt familiar, it might be because he also hit a go-ahead three-run shot in the 10th inning of Washington's 10-6 victory at Citizens Bank Park on April 9. Or maybe it was reminiscent of the go-ahead solo homer he hit in the 10th inning at the same ballpark on Sept. 11 last season.

"He doesn’t shy away from big moments, I can tell you that," Martinez said. "But he’s just a good hitter. He understands when he steps in the batter’s box, he has a plan of what he wants to do."

Overall, Soto has hit four career homers in the ninth inning or later, all of which have come against the rival Phillies. He said he remembered hitting the one in extra innings earlier this season, but admitted this one was a bit sweeter.

"That was another good one," he said of the first game-winner. "But in that situation, we weren’t fighting that much against those guys [in the standings], but right now, it’s huge."

That's why the usually calm Soto could be seen pounding his chest and shouting into the Nationals' dugout as he rounded third base.

"It was awesome," Martinez said of Soto's exuberance. "A big moment, he comes through -- pumped his teammates up. He was just showing a little emotion."

But while Soto's teammates erupted on the bench and mobbed him upon his return to the dugout, closer Sean Doolittle had a bit of a different reaction to the sudden lead change.

"[Soto] pops one, and the bullpen catcher put his hands over his head and was going nuts, and I was like, ‘Get down, we gotta go -- I’m in the game now,'" said Doolittle, who had just been tossing the ball back-and-forth with bullpen catcher Octavio Martinez prior to the homer. "But you get enough of an adrenaline spike from that situation that it doesn’t take much."

Soto's swing provided enough of a rush for Doolittle to lock down his 20th save. It also took starter Patrick Corbin -- who had 10 strikeouts over six innings -- off the hook for what would have been his first loss in more than a month.

Most important, Soto became the latest Nationals player to step up for a team that is 30-11 since falling a season-high 12 games below .500 on May 23. That's the best 41-game stretch in franchise history.

"That feels amazing," Soto said. "You try to help your team the most you can. You know you’ve got a good pitcher on the mound for them with [Aaron] Nola and a good team, and you’re fighting with that team. All my emotions came out."