HOUSTON -- Few hitters, especially those who bat left-handed, are capable of hitting balls onto the train tracks sitting above the left-field wall at Minute Maid Park. Since Statcast began tracking in 2015, no left-handed hitter had launched a ball 417 feet to the opposite field in this ballpark. But Juan Soto had never played here before Tuesday night.
Playing in his first career World Series game just a few days shy of his 21st birthday on Friday, Soto almost single-handedly carried the Nationals to their first Fall Classic win in franchise history, a 5-4 victory over the Astros in Game 1. In his introduction to this national stage, Soto drove in three runs, collected three hits -- all of them to the opposite field -- stole a base and left a sold-out crowd of 43,339 fans stunned with his opposite-field moonshot off Gerrit Cole to lead off the fourth inning.
“For a 20-year-old to do what he did, slow the game down, it’s …” started Johnny DiPuglia, the Nationals’ vice president of international operations, before he paused and gave a slight chuckle. “[Nats principal owner Mark] Lerner said, ‘Hey, when are you going to get me another Soto?’ I go, ‘Not gonna happen. Those guys come once every 50 years.’”
It was DiPuglia who signed Soto as a 16-year-old out of the Dominican Republic, so he should know.
Soto’s night becomes even more impressive when you consider his first at-bat, a three-pitch strikeout where he looked overmatched by Cole.
Trea Turner started off the first inning with an infield single and promptly stole second base, putting the Nationals in business from the jump. But after an ill-advised popped-up bunt from Adam Eaton, Cole responded with back-to-back strikeouts of Anthony Rendon and Soto on three pitches each, blowing away Soto with three fastballs at 97, 98 and 99 mph. Soto, the second-youngest cleanup hitter in World Series history (Cabrera, 2003), admitted to feeling a bit nervous in that first at-bat after the game. Maybe his timing was also a bit off after a long layoff. Either way, it was a very un-Soto-like at-bat.
“I was thinking the same thing -- be aggressive on the fastball and waiting for the fastball,” Soto said. “He likes to throw it. He's shown the fastball everywhere. The first couple of innings, he started throwing it and throwing it and throwing it. I was just waiting for that.”
That made the Nationals the second team in World Series history to receive at least one home run from a player 20 years or younger and one from a player 35 or older in the Fall Classic. The only other occurrence happened when Mantle and Johnny Mize both homered for the Yankees in the 1952 World Series. Soto and Zimmerman had the third-largest age gap between two players homering in the same World Series game, behind only David Ross and Javier Báez in Game 7 in 2016 and Eddie Murray and Javy Lopez in Game 2 in 1995.
After Zimmerman’s homer, Soto sensed a crack in Cole’s seemingly invincible armor. Given a 1-0 count in the fourth, Soto got another fastball up in the zone and clobbered it.
“You can always tell the young guys that come up that can slow the game down,” Zimmerman said. “I always say that, and everyone kind of says, ‘What does that mean?’ It means at any moment, at any time, you can take a deep breath and you don't try to do too much and you just stay within yourself. And it sounds easy to do, but it's hard to do even in the regular season for a 20-, 21-year-old, whatever. … To be able to do it on this stage, to be able to execute the plan that he had, he's got a chance to be OK.”
And Nats hitting coach Kevin Long appears to have predicted the whole thing. On the FOX broadcast during the game, reporter Tom Verducci said Long told him before the game that Soto would hit a homer off a high fastball from Cole.
"I said, 'That's Gerrit Cole. That's the best four-seam elevated fastball in baseball,'" Verducci said during Tuesday's broadcast. "[Long] said, 'I don't care, and I guarantee you' -- he used that word -- 'I guarantee you Juan Soto will hit a home run off a high fastball from Gerrit Cole.'"
It was further payoff from an extra batting-practice session between Soto and Long after Game 3 of the National League Championship Series, when Long tried to get Soto to let the ball travel deeper into the zone and focus on driving the ball the other way again. From that 15-minute session after the game, Soto felt like something clicked, and opposing pitchers are paying the price.
In Soto's next at-bat in the fifth, he ripped a two-run double off the left-field wall against Cole, becoming the first player under 21 years old to record a homer and a double in a World Series game. Then Soto punched a single into center field in the eighth and swiped second base, becoming the youngest player in postseason history with a homer and a stolen base in the same game.
That’s what’s on the line every time Soto steps up to the plate during this series, a chance to keep putting his name into the record books by doing things that few people who have played in a World Series, let alone at his age, have ever done.
“He was clearly the key guy that we couldn't control tonight,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “His bat speed is electric. His energy and his body is as advertised. He's calm in the moment. Clearly this is not too big a stage for him. I think he's taking big swings early on, bounced back from the punchout, had three really good at-bats, big hits.
“He was the difference in the game.”