On Soto's surprise bunt attempt and Cruz's ailing back

DENVER – Juan Soto stepped to the plate in the top of the third Tuesday night in about as advantageous a situation as he’s ever going to find himself in. After Alcides Escobar singled and César Hernández was grazed by a pitch, the Nationals had two on with nobody out and one of the best hitters in baseball up to bat.

What transpired next, though, caught everyone at Coors Field off guard, not the least of which the visiting team’s manager.

On the first pitch from Rockies right-hander Germán Márquez, Soto squared around to bunt. He wound up fouling it off, unable to keep the ball in fair territory down the third base line.

In the dugout, Davey Martinez considered calling it a night right there.

“I was going to take my uniform off and just walk inside,” Martinez said with a laugh that suggested he wasn’t being serious. “Hey, I’ve always said just when you think you’ve seen everything in this game, watch out.”

Suffice it to say, neither Martinez nor anyone else in the dugout gave Soto the bunt sign on that pitch. The young slugger decided to do it on his own. Which was exactly the opposite of what his manager wanted him to do in that situation.

“You know what, I don’t even know what he was thinking,” Martinez said, still laughing at the thought following a 10-2 blowout victory. “When we get guys on base like that, he’s the guy we want up. I saw him square around, and honestly I thought: ‘He just wants to see a pitch.’ And then he bunted the ball, and I was like … uh, OK. …”

Soto, who has six bunt hits in his career, though five of those came as a rookie in 2018, didn’t attempt it again after fouling off the first pitch. He wound up working the count full, then struck out on a nasty slider down and in from Márquez to end an odd at-bat.

From his perch in the on-deck circle, Josh Bell seemed to understand what Soto’s thought process was when he decided to try to bunt for a hit and catch the Colorado defense off guard.

“I feel like we’ve watched a couple guys do it the last few series,” Bell said. “I think it’s in the back of all of our heads: Just pull that defender in if you can. And if not, so be it. But I could see him doing that again in the next couple of weeks, squaring around and hitting a homer in the same at-bat, too. Watch out for that one.”

Soto would homer during Tuesday’s win, but not in that at-bat. He came back two innings after the bunt and blasted a 414-foot shot to left-center for his fifth homer of the season.

Bell, however, did immediately follow the surprise bunt attempt with a three-run homer, making the whole thing moot.

“That’s what this game’s all about,” Bell said of picking up Soto. “That’s why I love hitting behind him.”

* Nelson Cruz departed Tuesday night’s game with lower back stiffness, an ailment Martinez described as “a day-to-day thing.”

Cruz was due to bat in the top of the seventh with the Nationals ahead 7-1, but Lane Thomas surprisingly stepped to the plate to pinch-hit for the 41-year-old designated hitter. Thomas would produce a single and then score on Yadiel Hernandez’s double to deep center field.

Martinez said Cruz first mentioned his back ailment during the afternoon but was able to get himself ready to play. By the later innings, it was hampering him too much to continue.

“He tried it before the game; he got it loose,” Martinez said. “And then as the game went on, he’s sitting there and it just tightened up. He said it isn’t bad, but I said, 'Let’s just get you out and get you worked on and we’ll see how you feel tomorrow.'”

Cruz had another rough night at the plate prior to departing with the injury, going 0-for-3 with two ground balls and a strikeout. He’s now batting .143 with a .209 slugging percentage and .442 OPS for the season.

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