Young stars Acuna, Soto bond in tour of Japan
Division rivals, both 20, finished in top two of NL Rookie of the Year voting
HIROSHIMA, Japan -- Given their ages, their enthusiastic zest for playing baseball and how quickly they climbed through their respective Major League organizations, it's no wonder Ronald Acuna Jr. and Juan Soto have become such good friends.
In fact, it seems the only thing they don't have in common are the teams that pay them, and in that respect, well, maybe they shouldn't be so chummy. After all, over the past year or so, Acuna's Braves and Soto's Nationals have created a healthy rivalry -- the natural byproduct when two teams that play in the same division are good at the same time.
But that's not really how baseball works these days. Camaraderie among opposing ballplayers is common these days. Friendships form early and withstand both the passing of time and the modern-day common practice of players moving from team to team.
:: NL Rookie of the Year voting totals ::
It's likely Soto and Acuna, so closely tied in the public eye because of their age and their level of talent, have that type of friendship, even now, in the very early stages of what look to be promising Major League careers for both. And this week, they're not only friends, but also teammates, as participants of the Japan All-Star Series featuring a six-game tournament between Major League All-stars and Samurai Japan.
"We're having a great time playing together on the same team," Acuna said. "We like to inspire each other to be better players."
They have spent most of their time together on this trip, whether it's touring the country on their own or palling around during practice once they get to the ballpark. They clearly have more in common than their raw numbers, though those alone give them plenty to talk about when they're together.
The mutual respect was never as obvious as it was on Tuesday, in the aftermath of the announcement that Acuna was the runaway winner of the National League Rookie of the Year Award. He finished well ahead of the second-place Soto, though offensively, the two were very closely matched.
More than halfway through the Japan trip, the two spoke glowingly of each other, both personally and professionally.
"He's very impressive," Soto said on Tuesday. "I've enjoyed playing with him, and respect how he plays the game. His personality, how he plays ball...he's a good guy. We're good friends."
Acuna, speaking with a roomful of local reporters following the announcement he won the honor, smiled when the topic of the friendship was broached.
"It's always fun to play with Soto," he said. "He's such a great player. It's always fun to watch him play, too. We're having a great opportunity to play together on the same team. We like to inspire each other to become better players."
If they improve upon 2018, look out. Acuna batted .293/.366/.552 with 26 homers over 111 games and went on a second-half tear as a five-tool force on a young, up-and-coming Braves playoff team. The 20-year-old batted .322 with a 1.028 OPS post All-Star break, producing a .328/.409/.634 line with 19 homers from the leadoff spot.
Soto wasn't far behind. He batted .292 with 22 homers over 116 games, having played only eight games above the Class A level when he was called up on May 20. If not for Acuna's second-half surge -- he homered in five straight games from Aug. 11-14 -- it's likely Soto would have had a stronger candidacy to win the NL Rookie of the Year Award.
Still, Soto's star is bright, and he's still so stunningly young. The games he's currently playing in Japan are his first as a non-teenager -- he turned 20 on Oct. 25.
Soto was effusive in his praise of Acuna, emphasizing that his friend deserved to win the top honor for a rookie, while expressing satisfaction with the season he had, as well.
"He did the job the right way," Soto said of Acuna. "He plays baseball the right way, and he deserves the award. I was happy for him."
Any disappointment to have finished second?
"No, I'm happy," Soto said. "Not just for the votes, but the year I had. Not a lot of players had a year like that. To come through the Minor Leagues and to come far so quickly, I played how I wanted. I played freely, and I'm happy with the season I had."
Japan All-Star Series schedule (watch games live on MLB Network, with replays at 8 p.m. ET):
• Nov. 8: MLB All-Stars 9, Yomiuri Giants 6
• Friday: Samurai Japan 7, MLB All-Stars 6
• Saturday: Samurai Japan 12, MLB All-Stars 6
• Sunday: MLB All-Stars 7, Samurai Japan 3
• Tuesday: 6:30 p.m. local/4:30 a.m. ET
• Wednesday: 7 p.m. local/5 a.m. ET
• Thursday: 6 p.m. local/4 a.m. ET