MIAMI -- Juan Soto has hit leadoff twice in his Major League career. But with his country, the Dominican Republic, needing a spark, manager Rodney Linares penciled Soto in as the new leadoff hitter.
Once again, Soto proved that there’s virtually nothing he can’t do inside the batter’s box, turning into the ideal leadoff hitter for a dominant Dominican lineup, leading the charge by going 2-for-4 with a homer and three runs scored in the Dominican Republic’s 6-1 win over Nicaragua on Monday at loanDepot park. The victory gave them a 1-1 record in Pool D of the World Baseball Classic.
“I’ve never liked [hitting leadoff],” Soto said with a smile. “But I would do anything for my country.”
After being robbed of extra bases in his third at-bat, Soto launched the first homer of his World Baseball Classic career, an upper-deck shot off Nicaragua’s Junior Tellez, who couldn’t help but smile at Soto’s 401-foot blast in the sixth inning.
“Every time I wear this uniform, I feel happy to represent my country,” Soto said. “No matter against whom, I’m always out there enjoying every time, every second. That’s the way I like to play because you never know when this will happen again. We got the victory that we needed, but I’m just always trying to enjoy the game.”
Soto's Padres teammate Manny Machado also joined the homer party with a solo blast in the seventh inning. Machado came about 25 combined feet from hitting four homers, but a spacious loanDepot park made for a more modest Monday.
“I have to go to the gym after this,” Machado laughed. “No, man, it’s fun hitting home runs in the Classic. The environment that was there today was unbelievable. They’ve been bringing the energy every single day the last two days, and it’s been awesome to play in front of them and in front of this home crowd.”
The blasts by Soto and Machado also helped reveal a celebratory prop the Dominican Republic brought back from the country: A home run presidential sash.
General manager and designated hitter Nelson Cruz brought the sash, or the “nona” as Dominicans call it, from the Dominican Republic. The Dominicans were ready to break it out on Saturday against Venezuela, but were never able to show it to the world. They had their chances on Monday, and they hope to do it even more over the next two days.
“It’s very difficult to steal it from the president,” Soto laughed. “But we just borrowed it. That was the new celebration for the team. Thank God we could do it today and we enjoyed that moment.”
While the Dominican Republic’s lineup found its form, its pitching staff also did its job against Nicaragua. They were led by Cristian Javier, who tossed four scoreless innings in his WBC debut. The rest of the bullpen limited Nicaragua to one run over the final five frames.
“He pitched like Javier pitches – up in the zone, used his slider,” said Linares. “Threw a couple of really nasty changeups.”
The pressure and expectations have been high for the Dominican Republic since rosters for the tournament were announced over a month ago.
The pressure only intensified as the entire island’s nerves ratcheted up following a loss to Venezuela in the country's Classic opener on Saturday. In order for the D.R. to advance to the quarterfinals and continue its dream of bringing a second WBC title home, it will likely have to win out in Pool D play.
Now looking more like the Dominican Republic team everyone expected to show up to the Classic, such a win streak looks much more attainable.
“It was a very important game today,” Machado said. “Out after out, the pitchers were great today and we were able to score the runs when we needed them.”
Nicaragua was eliminated with Monday’s loss and their first World Baseball Classic experience will come to an end following Tuesday’s game vs. Venezuela, which sits atop Pool D with a 2-0 record. That contest will air at 12 p.m. ET on FS2.
The Dominican Republic faces its next test in its quest for a quarterfinal berth on Tuesday night when it faces Israel at 7 p.m. on FS1.