Young outfield making tough catches look commonplace

The outfield defense was on display again for the Nationals in their 7-0 shutout of the Braves on Sunday at Nats Park. Juan Soto made nice catch in the corner, and Victor Robles a few incredible stops in deep center field, including a few against the dreaded sun monster.

Soto had to grab a line drive to begin the game off of Ronald Acuña Jr.’s bat. Robles had a few versus Matt Joyce, Josh Donaldson and then Freddie Freeman in the ninth inning. Adam Eaton caught one for an out off the bat of Dansby Swanson to begin the third inning. Eaton also made sure that some singles didn’t turn into doubles. He also made the final two outs of the game.

All these plays were instrumental in helping starter Aníbal Sánchez and closer Sean Doolittle keep the game in hand. All of Hunter Strickland’s outs came on strikeouts or infield grounders.

“First of all, our defense was fantastic, our outfield defense,” said bench coach Chip Hale. “Victor, numerous questions, Eaton cutting the ball in the gap and getting it into second base. Obviously, Juan’s great catch on the line. Juan has worked extremely hard on his defense.

“(Third base coach) Bobby Henley has done a great job with him. Both he and Victor have worked really hard at it, and even more on the mental side, where to play, how to approach balls, when to kind of say, ‘I can’t get him at home, throw the ball into second,’ those kinds of things.

“It’s been improved, and obviously, at 20 years old, it’s only going to get better for him. He’s learning every day. It’s very impressive.”

Robles had a big day at the plate as well, finishing with a single, a double, a walk and two runs scored. After yesterday’s game, he responded to the question of whether offense or defense is the bigger deal to him.

Robles-Lays-Out-Soto-Celebrating-Gray-Sidebar.jpg“I’ve always dreamt of being a great defensive outfielder,” Robles said via team translator Octavio Martinez. “And God gave me the ability and talent, so I thank him for that. I keep battling, keep working, keep improving. Not settling for being just what I am. I know my ability, but I want to improve in every aspect of my game. Obviously, a big hit feels great as well, but defense is something that I’m proud of.”

The Nats Park outfield can be a lonely place, especially in the late afternoon, when the sun can obscure a player’s view, a circumstance referred to as the “sun monster” since the days when Bryce Harper was a Nationals outfielder trying to track white baseballs against the blinding, sun-splashed sky of southeast D.C.

Robles had one play yesterday in which he could not see the baseball until the very last millisecond, and he reached out to stab the ball out of the air for the last out. Robles said he called out to Soto and Eaton for assistance.

“It was definitely a difficult play,” Robles said via Martinez. “I was battling pretty bad the sun early on. And I definitely yelled at him to help me. I realized that they were a little too far, so I realized it was going to have to be me. And unfortunately, I couldn’t really get the ball out of the sun. I tried at the last minute to get underneath it a little bit and to see it peek out a little bit from the sun. And luckily, I was able to get a glimpse of it and catch it.”

All those plays in the outfield were not lost on the veteran Sánchez, who pitched seven shutout innings as the Braves managed only three hits, two singles and a double.

“Those guys are unbelievable,” Sánchez said. “Sometimes they don’t look as young as they are. You can see how young they are for the energy they bring to the team, but the way that they played in these games, they looked like veterans on the field.”

Catches like the ones Soto and Robles have made can become even more valuable for the Nats as they work toward their goal of returning to postseason play and making a long run toward a title.

Every big catch Sunday signaled more examples of how well Soto and Robles have taken to the defensive strategies Henley and the staff have taught them. Working together every day this season, side by side, has played a big role in their improvement on defense, compared to those early games when the duo first started patrolling the Nats Park outfield grass.

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