Among the plethora of compliments bestowed upon Juan Soto in his first month in the big leagues, perhaps this latest one from the mouth of his manager tonight is most meaningful.
“He’s got unbelievable poise,” Nationals manager Davey Martinez said, “no matter what the situation is.”
Martinez already knew that before Soto stepped to the plate in the bottom of the eighth tonight, the Nats’ game with the Orioles on the line, and watched the 19-year-old deliver the two-run double that propelled his team to a 4-2 victory.
Martinez knew it when he decided to write Soto’s name down in the No. 4 spot in his lineup for this game, a change that was overshadowed by slumping Bryce Harper’s move up to the leadoff spot, but one that was just as significant.
Big league managers simply don’t just bat 19-year-olds in the cleanup spot. Davey Johnson never did it with Harper during his fantastic rookie season in 2012. Mike Scioscia never did it with Mike Trout in 2011.
In fact, you have to go all the way back to 1970, when César Cedeño went 0-for-4 in one June game for the Astros to find the last teenager to bat fourth in a major league game. Go back even farther and you’ll find a grand total of only 10 players who have done it since 1922, and the list includes names like Brooks Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Mel Ott, Rusty Staub and Ed Kranepool.
Soto, who tonight played in only his 28th career game, has a long, long way to before he can be compared to some of those all-time greats. But for now, he’s simply leaving the all-time greats in his own clubhouse in awe of his performances.
“What more can you say about him? He’s stepped up to the plate,” said Max Scherzer, the three-time Cy Young Award winner who is currently on a Hall of Fame track. “He’s the bat we kind of need in our lineup right now, that’s hot. And teams are going to have to figure out how to get him out, cause it’s tough right now. He’s really locked into what he wants to do.”
Never was that more apparent than during the critical at-bat of tonight’s win. With the go-ahead run (Harper) on third, an insurance run (Trea Turner) on first and one out, Soto didn’t try to launch the ball into the third deck down the right field line. No, he did what he has consistently been doing since he first appeared in D.C. last month: He tried to hit the ball in the air to the opposite field. And he delivered, sending an 0-1 fastball from Mychal Givens into the gap in left-center.
“I always hit it to the other way,” Soto said. “I like to hit it there. It’s better for me. I can see the ball better when I hit it over there. Everything.”
Find another 19-year-old, one who began his season in low Single-A, who not only takes that mindset to the plate with a big league game on the line but actually implements it to win said game.
“Every time he steps to the plate, he competes,” Scherzer said. “And he takes his walks. He understands. He has a great feel for the strike zone that he doesn’t expand as much as you would think for a young guy. To have that type of eye, it’s remarkable for him to be able to do that at this time, at this age and at this level.”
With each passing day, Soto’s red-hot start looks less like a fluke and more like the real thing. He’s batting .326 with six homers, 16 RBIs, 18 runs, a .426 on-base percentage and 1.024 OPS that ranks third in the National League since he debuted on May 20.
So why not try him out in the cleanup spot? He’s already earned it. And he certainly wasn’t fazed by the new assignment tonight.
“Not that much,” he said. “Just a little bit. I just tried to be focused and keep working.”