Finally, Juan Soto feels like his swing is getting back to normal.
On a full count during the fifth inning of the Nationals’ 4-3 win over the Cubs on Wednesday, Soto turned on a slider from Chicago starter Jake Arrieta and smoked a 421-foot home run off the right-field scoreboard at Wrigley Field. The home run was just his first since May 7, and only his second since April 10. Considering his recent string of ground balls, Soto’s long ball could be the breakout he needed to keep things in the air.
“I think I feel great,” Soto said. “I started putting the ball in the air a couple times, and it feels almost normal again.”
Dating back to the beginning of an 11-4 loss to the D-backs on May 15, 15 of the 20 balls Soto has put in play have been grounders. Not that it’s held back his numbers -- three of those five games have been multi-hit games, and he still ranks near the top of the league in expected batting average, expected slugging, strikeout rate, and a host of other Statcast statistics. But he’s been struggling to get the ball off the ground since returning from the injured list on May 4, and his average launch angle sits at just 0.6 degrees this season after Wednesday.
“We’ve been working on it,” Soto said last Saturday. “We’re trying to put the ball in the air. We’re trying to put the [bat] head out, put the barrel out to the ball and then see how far it can land.”
A timing issue since recovering from a left shoulder strain has been the likely culprit, but the ground balls haven’t been the largest concern for Soto or Washington manager Dave Martinez this early in the season. Knowing Soto is among the best hitters in the Majors, they’ve maintained that a few tweaks could help Soto get air under the ball. If his performance at the plate Wednesday is any indication, those tweaks are working.
Soto went 3-for-5 on the day, with three of his batted balls being a flyout, the home run, and a line-drive single to left. It was the kind of performance the Nationals have grown accustomed to seeing from Soto, one where he hits balls all over the field with a lot of air underneath.
“The good thing is he hit the ball the other way on the line, and that's always good to see with him, because he's a guy that hits the ball hard all over and could go deep anywhere in the ballpark,” Martinez said Thursday. “So it was good to see him swing the bat the way he did. Like I said, I wasn't overly concerned with him. He's a good hitter, we just noticed that he's hitting the ball on the ground and he needs to get his contact point a little bit out further in front of him, and he did that.”
The next step is being able to sustain it, which should happen the further Soto gets from his injury and the more opportunities he has to get his timing down.
Robles' ankle doing OK
After placing two pitchers on the IL before Wednesday’s game, the Nationals nearly lost center fielder Victor Robles, too.
Robles hit a single down the left-field line in the fourth inning that should’ve been a double, but as he rounded first base, Robles rolled his right ankle and hit the dirt. Robles stayed down as Washington’s staff went out to check on him, but as soon as Martinez mentioned removing him from the game, Robles shot up and sprinted down the right field line to prove his ankle was OK.
“I was really concerned, I thought maybe it could be his Achilles, the way he went down,” Martinez said. “And then I told him I had to take him out of the game, and he shot up like a rocket and started running.”
Soreness ultimately led to Robles being taken out of the game in the bottom of the seventh, but fortunately, Martinez revealed that X-rays on Robles’ ankle came back negative.
Robles wasn’t in the starting lineup for Thursday’s series finale, but considering the 24-year-old is hitting .412 over his past six games and leads all Major League center fielders with four defensive runs saved (per FanGraphs), avoiding an IL stint would be a huge positive for Washington.