NEW YORK - Under the bright lights of Yankee Stadium, a young left-handed slugger from Washington wowed a crowd of 45,030 (and the assembled New York media) with a prodigious display of power that surely left plenty around here dreaming he might someday wear the fabled pinstripes.
And we’re not talking about Bryce Harper, folks.
No, the star slugger on this evening was Juan Soto, the 19-year-old who has taken the majors by storm since his arrival three weeks ago. And he took everything to new heights tonight, launching two go-ahead home runs for the Nationals, the second of which ultimately propelled them to a 5-4 victory over the Yankees.
“For him to go out there and do what he did today, in front of this crowd,” manager Davey Martinez said, “it tells you a little bit about the character that he brings.”
Soto, still only seven weeks removed from low Single-A Hagerstown, lofted a three-run homer just over the left field fence in the top of the fourth to provide a much-needed jolt to a struggling Nats lineup. But it was his 436-foot blast over the bullpen in right-center in the top of the seventh against Chasen Shreve that will leave people talking for some time.
It was Soto’s fifth major league homer, his fourth off a left-hander. He’s the youngest player to hit two home runs in a big league game since Andruw Jones in 1996, the youngest to hit any home run in the Bronx since Ken Griffey Jr. in 1989.
“Two of the good outfielders,” said Soto, born nine years after Griffey Jr. debuted. “That says a lot, but I like that.”
Twenty games into his major league career, Soto is sporting a .344 batting average, .447 on-base percentage, 1.088 OPS, five homers, 12 RBIs, 12 walks and only 11 strikeouts.
“It’s unbelievable,” said fellow rookie Erick Fedde, six years Soto’s elder. “I’ve had my amount of time in the minors, and to see what he’s doing, to go through that and get to this level and shine is pretty remarkable.”
Or, as reliever Justin Miller simply put it: “He’s the truth.”
Most importantly from the Nationals’ perspective, these Soto blasts lifted his team to victory and a two-game series split against the majors’ best team to date in 2018.
“He picked us up today,” Martinez said.
Victory tonight also required some deft relief work, which the Nationals got. Miller, the out-of-nowhere sensation, continued his dominance, tossing 1 2/3 scoreless innings and striking out four before Sammy Solís recorded the final out of the seventh.
Ryan Madson pitched out of a jam in the eighth to keep the one-run lead intact. And Sean Doolittle finished it off with a scoreless ninth to notch his 17th save in 18 attempts and send his team north to Toronto with a positive vibe.
“I’m proud of the boys,” Martinez said. “They battled back. The bullpen came in and was outstanding.”
The game began with the Nationals riding a 19-inning scoreless streak, but that ended in a hurry after Adam Eaton led off the game with a double, took third on Trea Turner’s infield single and scored on Anthony Rendon’s sacrifice fly.
The Nats kept the pressure on Sonny Gray, but they kept shooting themselves in the foot. Four of the first nine outs they recorded were on the bases, two of them on pickoffs. By night’s end, they had run into five outs.
“Let me be honest with you: It was ugly. It was,” Martinez said, a rare postgame criticism from the typically upbeat skipper. “I’m not going to lie. We gave them five outs. Typically when you do that, you don’t expect to win the ballgame.”
Once they got out of their own way, the Nationals finally put themselves in position to take advantage. Daniel Murphy’s two-out walk in the top of the fourth - Murphy’s first time on base this season - set the stage. Matt Adams’ subsequent single to right left traffic on the bases for Soto. And the kid delivered his latest impressive hit, lofting a pitch beyond the outside corner high and down the left field line, just clearing the fence.
“I was surprised, yeah,” Soto said. “Because I hit it pretty good, but too high. So I was running the bases saying: ‘Keep going, keep going, keep going!’ So when it was gone, I felt very good.”
Soto’s fourth home run in 20 major league games, his third hit to the opposite field, gave the Nationals a 4-3 lead. But he was just getting started.
By the time Soto stepped to the plate again, the game was tied, Gleyber Torres having taken Fedde deep to left in the bottom of the fifth. It was the second solo homer surrendered by Fedde, Greg Bird having also touched him up in the bottom of the second.
Summoned from Triple-A Syracuse to make a start that would have gone to Stephen Strasburg if not for his injured right shoulder, Fedde showed off a mid-90s fastball but struggled to keep this potent Yankees lineup completely in check. He would have benefited from some better defense - Spencer Kieboom’s errant throw on a stolen base helped set the stage for one run, Rendon’s inability to make a play on a hard grounder by Giancarlo Stanton allowed another to score - but Fedde wound up allowing four runs in five innings.
“The first inning, he was excited,” Martinez said. “Yankee Stadium, I get it. He’s working fast. And then he settled down a little bit.”
It’s not easy for a rookie to avoid showing nerves in his first game in the Bronx. As the Nationals are quickly finding out, though, they’ve got a 19-year-old outfielder who is proving he’s no typical rookie.
“He understands the game,” Martinez said. “He understands his at-bats. He’ll swing at a bad pitch, and then he’ll lay off the next one. And he’s been doing that all year. He’s not afraid to take his walks. He’ll take his walks when he needs to. And he’s learning every day.”