He homered and singled in his first major league start. He singled and walked three times in his second major league start. So when it came time to figure out where to bat Juan Soto in his third major league start, Davey Martinez decided to throw a new challenge at the 19-year old: The No. 2 spot in the lineup.
Soto will hit in that prime position today against the Padres, sandwiched in between Trea Turner and Bryce Harper in the latest display of confidence from the Nationals in a kid who was playing in low-Single-A one month ago.
“I think the matchup was good,” Martinez said. “See if we can get a couple guys on for Harp and (Anthony) Rendon. I like (Matt) Adams in that 5-hole, too. I think it works out pretty good.”
Soto, who batted sixth each of the previous two nights, earned the opportunity to move up in the lineup in large part due to the patience he displayed Tuesday. Of the 14 pitches he saw from Padres pitchers, 12 were out of the strike zone, and he didn’t swing at any of them.
That’s an admirable trait for any No. 2 hitter, no matter his age.
“He works good at-bats; he’s got a good eye,” Martinez said. “We saw that yesterday. He laid off some good pitches. I talked about it yesterday: We gave him the green light 3-0 (in the ninth inning of a tie game) and he laid off a pretty good pitch just to get on base. That shows me something. The kid’s got character. He’s 19, but you watch him and his antics are like he’s been here for quite some time.”
The Nationals have thrown a whole lot at Soto in the last month, from three promotions that ultimately landed him in the majors to starts against left-handers and now a bump up in the lineup. Though they’ll try to be careful not to throw too much at him too soon, they’re also hoping he can continue to display the poise of someone with far more experience and not think too much about everything going on around him.
“My conversation with him was simple,” Martinez said. “I told him: ‘Keep it simple. You’ve been playing this game for some time. I know you’ve been pushed up here, but take care of the seconds. The minutes, the hours and the days will take care of themselves.’ That’s where we went with him. Things will happen. The game will speed up on you, because it does for everybody. And in those moments, just try to slow everything back down and do what you’re good at.”
Soto is only one of three rookies in the Nationals lineup today, joined by the starting battery of Erick Fedde and Spencer Kieboom. It’s Fedde’s first major league appearance this season after eight at Triple-A Syracuse, and Martinez said they’ll likely keep a close eye on his pitch count and not let him go too deep in the game.
Fedde and Kieboom are no strangers, having worked together a number of times in the minors. That made it an easier decision for Martinez to give the 27-year-old rookie only his second career start behind the plate.
”(Pedro Severino) has caught him before, too,” the manager said. “But I wanted to get Kieboom in there today, and this worked out good.”
To make room on the 25-man roster for Fedde, the Nationals designated reliever Carlos Torres for assignment. The 35-year-old right-hander had a 6.52 ERA in 10 appearances, five of those coming in games the Nats led by five or more runs.
Torres will be in roster limbo for a few days, available for other teams to claim off waivers but also potentially staying in the organization if he goes unclaimed and is outrighted to the minors.
“It was a tough decision, it really was, but we needed a spot today for Fedde,” Martinez said. “Hopefully he clears waivers and we get him back, ‘cause I really like him. It was tough. These are the days when being a manager stinks, but it’s part of it.”
Update: Fedde was impressive today, but his outing ended on a sour note. The young right-hander put up four consecutive zeroes to get his afternoon started, striking out six and featuring a fastball between 94-96 mph. The Padres finally got to him in the top of the fifth, with Freddy Galvis doubling and then Manuel Margot driving him in with a two-out single to right. And then came the top of the sixth, when with two outs and two on, Christian Villanueva sent a drive to deep right field. Bryce Harper had a lead on it but couldn’t finish the play. The ball bounced of his glove, two runs scored and Harper was charged with a costly error. Just like that, the Nats trail 3-0 in the sixth.
Update II: The Nats finally got on the board in the bottom of the seventh, when Matt Adams lofted his 11th home run of the season into the right field bullpen. But that’s all they got. They still trail 3-1 after seven innings, running out of time to moutn a rally.
Update III: That’ll do it. The Nationals never could get enough going at the plate today, so they suffered a 3-1 loss and failed to sweep the series. They now hit the road for 10 games (at Miami, Baltimore and Atlanta) with a 26-22 record.