When he stepped to the plate in the eighth inning Sunday afternoon for the first at-bat of his major league career, Juan Soto understandably felt a little out of sorts.
“I was really nervous,” the 19-year-old outfielder said. “I was just saying: ‘Oh, my god. ...’ I was just trying to breathe down and do my job.”
The previous 24 hours had been a whirlwind for Soto, who the previous night was told he was being called up to the big leagues straight from Double-A Harrisburg, where he had only been for a week-and-a-half. He wasn’t in the Nationals’ lineup for their series finale against the Dodgers, but manager Davey Martinez wanted to give him a chance to get his feet wet with a late pinch-hitting appearance.
Soto proceeded to strike out on four pitches, a disappointing MLB debut initially made more disappointing when he learned his parents hadn’t been able to make it from their home in the Dominican Republic to the ballpark in time for the game.
Disappointing, only until Soto stepped to the plate in the bottom of the second tonight, with mom and dad in the stands this time.
“They get here yesterday,” Soto said. “They can’t be here for the game, so maybe it’s a (blessing) to strike out, then here when I do these things.”
Yeah, all things considered, it probably was better that Soto waiting until the second at-bat of his career to hit the first home run of his career.
That home run, a 422-foot, opposite-field, over-the-bullpen, three-run homer, instantly put Soto into an elite class of special players in Nationals history. He not only became the fourth player in club history to record a home run for his first major league hit, he not only became the first teenager to hit a home run in the majors since a guy named Bryce Harper did it as a rookie in 2012, he not only earned a curtain call from the crowd of 27,890, he also jolted a previously moribund Nationals lineup back to life.
By the time tonight’s game was over, Harper had also homered and doubled in another run, Mark Reynolds had homered twice, Trea Turner had twice doubled home a run and Michael A. Taylor had tripled home a run, all of it adding up to a 10-2 thumping of the Padres.
Is it possible for one blast by a 19-year-old to energize an entire team?
“It did,” Martinez said. “When he hit that ball, everyone was jacked up. Shortly after that, we hit the ball pretty good.”
The Nationals enjoyed their best collective night at the plate since a 12-run explosion May 1 against the Pirates. And the youngest player on the roster - the youngest player in the majors - jumpstarted it all.
“When I was 19,” said Reynolds, who was a sophomore at the University of Virginia, “I could barely swing a metal bat.”
Reynolds, who only signed with the Nationals in April, didn’t previously know much of anything about Soto. But neither did many who already were in the organization before the young phenom put together a stunning opening six weeks to his season, earning three promotions in a month, from low-Single-A to high-Single-A to Double-A to Washington.
By the time Soto arrived here Sunday, though, the legend was well-known. After hitting 14 homers in 39 minor league games to begin the season, who wasn’t counting on him hitting a 15th when he came up to bat tonight in his first major league start?
“Some of the guys when I was in Triple-A were talking about: ‘Oh, he hit a homer like every day, or something,’” Reynolds said. “I heard about that and then didn’t expect anything less in his first at-bat tonight.”
Soto delivered in dramatic fashion. Stepping to the plate with runners on second and third and nobody out, he hammered Robbie Erlin’s first-pitch fastball to left field. He claims he didn’t know it was going to be a homer until he saw it clear the fence, but everybody else in the park sure did.
“I just run hard, the same I do in the minor leagues,” Soto said. “Then I heard the noise, and I know it was gone.”
The rest of Soto’s trip around the bases was all smiles, through his gesture to his parents as he crossed the plate, through his imitation Bryce Harper hair flip after Michael A. Taylor removed his helmet - “Just trying to have fun a little bit with the guys,” he said - to his sheepish curtain call.
“He sat there,” Martinez said. “He didn’t know what to do about the standing ovation. We told him: ‘Hey, just go out there.’ He did his thing. It was a lot of fun.
“He pays attention to the game. You can tell he has a passion for the game, loves the game, and he wants to play.”
All it took was one big swing tonight for all of Washington to fall in love with the latest 19-year-old slugger to announce his arrival in town with authority.