Soto back in 2-spot, now trying to solve RISP woes

ARLINGTON, Texas – Nine days ago, in the opener of their doubleheader against the Phillies, the Nationals tried to mount a bottom-of-the-ninth rally. Trailing by two runs, the bottom of the order got two men on base with one out, turning the lineup over and giving better hitters a chance to pull it off.

But then Lane Thomas grounded out, César Hernández struck out and Juan Soto found himself watching a 5-3 loss become official from the on-deck circle.

That was the last time Soto batted third for the Nats. In each of eight games since, he has served as their No. 2 hitter. And that has been by design.

“We’re getting all these numbers periodically, and analytically the numbers suggest our best hitter should hit two,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He’s getting a lot of opportunities with guys on base, and that’s kind of where I want him. The other thing: It happened again where he was on-deck and we couldn't get him up there (to the plate). I don’t want that. If we have a chance to win a game, I want him up and not on-deck.”

There certainly is logic behind that. It’s among the reasons Martinez had Soto batting second to begin the season. But as the slugger struggled, the Nationals decided to try him back in his more familiar No. 3 spot to see if it sparked anything in him.

It didn’t. In 23 games batting third this season, Soto is batting a paltry .185. He’s still drawing walks, leading to a .340 on-base percentage. But as has been the case when batting second, he’s simply not driving in runs.

Soto’s overall numbers with runners in scoring position remain astonishing. He’s now 7-for-56 in those situations, having delivered fewer hits than Luis García despite twice as many plate appearances.

The good news: Soto does continue to provide at least one quality at-bat per game. He’s doubled off the wall in left-center each of the last two days. But each of those hits came when leading off an inning, with nobody on base. His success rate has dramatically dropped off when given an opportunity to drive in runs.

“The biggest thing for me with him is accept his walks, which he’s done well. Not chase,” Martinez said. “I think when we get runners in scoring position, he chases a little bit more than he normally does. We just have to get him to relax and control his strike zone. The biggest thing for him, when he does get a ball he can hit, he puts a good swing on the ball. And you’re seeing that: Sometimes he goes up there and he relaxes, he’s got no pressure to drive in runs, and he hits the ball well. We want him to take the same approach when there’s guys on base and just try to get a hit, try not to do too much.”

Soto is again batting second for today’s series finale against the Rangers. Martinez can only hope he not only puts together multiple quality at-bats, especially with runners on base, but that he also finds himself at the plate in the ninth inning with a chance to make a difference, not watching helplessly from the on-deck circle.

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