WASHINGTON -- Protection and power: those were two keys when the Nationals signed Nelson Cruz as a free agent this past offseason. In addition to his revered veteran leadership, the objectives were for Cruz to protect Juan Soto in the batting order and bolster the lineup with his slugging abilities.
Cruz entered Wednesday hitting .170 with three home runs, and he had been shifted from the third spot behind Soto to the fourth spot behind a hot-hitting Josh Bell. Soto came into the game batting .257 with six dingers, all with the bases empty. Of their combined nine home runs, none had been hit in the same game.
That changed in the Nationals’ 8-3 turnaround win over the Mets at Nationals Park -- for the first time this season, Soto and Cruz went deep on the same night. Soto revved up the offense in the opening frame with a Statcast-projected 411-foot, two-run shot to right-center field, and Cruz followed in the second inning with a 436-foot, three-run homer off starter Tylor Megill, who exited after just 54 pitches.
“I like it,” manager Dave Martinez said. “It’s good, very good. … To see both those guys hit a home run like that, it’s awesome.”
The home runs were enough to give the Nationals a commanding lead, as neither team scored after the second inning. The Nats plated a season-high-tying five runs in the first inning for the second time this month. The last time was in their 11-5 victory over the Giants on May 1.
“It’s just great because we are the middle part of the lineup,” Soto said. “And any time me, Josh or [Cruz] hit a homer, it’s just special for the team.”
Driving in runs is not only one of Soto’s strengths, but it’s also an area of the game he takes pride in. Last season, he hit 17 of his 29 homers with runners on base. The Nationals moved Soto up to the No. 2 spot in the batting order to get him more plate appearances, and with that has come a difference in at-bats with men on. But when César Hernández connected on a leadoff single, Soto made the most of a 97 mph four-seam fastball.
“For me, it’s kind of tough because you want to help the team as much as you can,” Soto said. “But it’s part of being a second-hole hitter. So for me, I just keep battling and keep doing my thing.”
While the 23-year-old Soto is poised for home run leaderboards, the 41-year-old Cruz moved up on the all-time list himself. With his 453rd career homer, he passed Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski for 39th in AL/NL history.
“Every homer feels good, you know?” Cruz said. “I guess when you can hit a three-run homer, it's more impressive. But the good thing is we won the game."
Martinez noted Cruz’s swing has been improving as of late and he is getting the ball in the air. Wednesday’s dinger off an 89.3 mph changeup was his longest since Sept. 7 of last season. The distance impressed Soto, who knows a thing or two about crushing home runs.
“It was a long way,” Soto said with a smile. “It’s just great to see him hitting the ball like that, and it’s just good to see him feeling better at the plate and getting better pitches.”
While Cruz and Soto are not expected to homer together every game, they can feed off of each other when their bats get going. And when they’re looking to get into a rhythm, Cruz has been a mainstay of encouragement and advice for his fellow slugger.
“It’s just how to keep positive,” Soto said of what he has learned this season from Cruz. “It doesn’t matter if things aren’t going our way. Just keep positive, keep playing baseball, keep playing hard every day. Don’t try to [let] things get on your mind. Just keep battling every day.”