Yep, it’s easy to forget now what preceded Howie Kendrick’s 10th-inning grand slam at Dodger Stadium in Game 5 of the 2019 National League Division Series, but it was indeed an intentional walk of Soto. The Dodgers weren’t about to let the then-20-year-old sensation beat them in a winner-take-all game. They would rather take their chances with the guy who was hitting behind Soto, the guy who was 0-for-4 with two strikeouts and a double play up to that point in the game.
Kendrick, of course, fully embraced the situation.
“As a hitter, you’re like: ‘Man, they’re really going to do that!’ ” he said late that glorious night inside a champagne-soaked clubhouse. “You want to go out and try to make them pay.”
The most important hitter in any team’s lineup is its best hitter. But the next-most important hitter? The guy who hits behind the best hitter.
The guy who comes up to bat with runners on base all the time. The guy teams would rather face than the big boy in front of him.
Advanced stats have shot down the significance of lineup protection. But tell that to any pitcher who’s standing on the mound in a critical spot with a base open and a feared slugger at the plate. Would he rather face that guy, or the guy waiting in the on-deck circle?
The guy in the on-deck circle needs to be more than a good hitter. He needs to have the right mindset for the job. He needs to want to be the guy to bat with the bases loaded late in a close game.
“I take pride in it,” Josh Bell said.
The Nationals had better hope he does, because it looks like he’s now the guy who’s going to be in the on-deck circle when Soto is at the plate.
“It’s a very strong possibility,” manager Davey Martinez said Thursday over Zoom when asked if Bell will be batting behind Soto this season. “The reason why we got him is, he’s hit cleanup before. Regardless of where we’re going to hit Soto, it looks kind of nice to have a switch-hitter behind Juan, a guy that can swing the bat, a guy that can drive the ball. I think for right now, we’re going to try it and see where we’re at.”
The Nats knew they needed to acquire the right bat for this job over the winter after watching Kendrick become a free agent and ultimately retire. As good as he was in the role in 2019, his persistent hamstring injury in 2020 left the club without viable lineup protection for Soto.
The guy who wound up hitting behind Soto the most last season? Asdrúbal Cabrera, whose .753 OPS ranked 94th out of 142 qualifying big league hitters.
That wasn’t good enough, and the Nationals made it a priority to find someone better. Trouble is, Bell was even worse than Cabrera last season, ranking 128th with a .669 OPS.
They desperately need the switch-hitting first baseman to return to his 2019 form with the Pirates, when he compiled a .936 OPS that was 16th-best in baseball.
“He’s ready for the task, I know he is,” Martinez said. “He’s excited. Josh is excited to be here. He loves the way our lineup fits. He talks a lot about Juan and Trea (Turner) possibly hitting in front of him. ... He knows he’s going to have some big moments, some big at-bats.”
Bell does have experience in this particular type of role. In 2017, his first full season in the majors, he regularly hit behind Andrew McCutchen, who was still an elite hitter at that point in his career. Bell went on to launch 26 homers, drive in 90 runs and finish third in NL Rookie of the Year voting.
“I remember I was hitting behind him when he was Player of the Month - I want to say it was August a few years back,” Bell said. “Just being able to watch and know that I’m locked in enough for him to get pitches, I’m locked in enough for him to find his stride and really hunt his zone. And that’s what this game boils down to. If a pitcher’s coming into your zone, you’re going to do damage. And if they have to come into your zone, because someone behind you can hit as well, that’s where runs are put up. That’s where numbers are put up, and I’m excited to get going with that.”
What are Martinez’s options if Bell isn’t up to the task? He could try Starlin Castro, returning from a broken wrist. He could try Kyle Schwarber, who like Bell is trying to recapture his 2019 form (38 homers, .871 OPS) after a dismal 2020 (.188 average, .701 OPS). He could even try something unconventional and bat Soto second with Turner behind him as protection.
But the plan going in appears to involve Bell, who desperately wants to make the most of this opportunity.
“Me being an RBI guy, I love hitting with guys on,” he said. “I know (Soto) is going to be over there, 40-50 percent of the time. So that makes me happy. That makes me smile as a hitter. And hopefully I can put up some numbers with him.”