The Nationals, like every franchise, have been through multiple eras over the years. Break down their 17 seasons in the District into smaller chunks, and you can rattle off each of those eras with only a handful of names.
The Frank Robinson Era. The Ryan Zimmerman Era. The Adam Dunn Era. The Stephen Strasburg-Jordan Zimmermann Era. The Bryce Harper-Jayson Werth Era. The Max Scherzer-Strasburg-Anthony Rendon Championship Club.
Make no mistake, that’s the identity of this franchise right now. Yes, Scherzer, Strasburg and Patrick Corbin still anchor a rotation that will make or break the club’s chances of success. But the guys who make something happen every single day are Turner and Soto.
With Harper, Rendon and Howie Kendrick gone, and with Zimmerman taking on a bench role, they anchor the lineup now. Whether they end up batting 1-2 or 2-3, Turner and Soto are the two hitters opposing pitchers will spend the most time preparing for in advance of starts.
“If you look back at what they did 1-2 last year, they were really good,” manager Davey Martinez said Tuesday during a Zoom session with reporters. “What a duo.”
For better or worse, Turner and Soto shouldered a tremendous load in the Nationals lineup last season. They combined to hit 38 percent of their homers (25 of 66) and 31 percent of their extra-base hits (58 of 190). They drove in 28 percent of the team’s runs (78 of 279). They even accounted for a whopping 55 percent of the Nats’ stolen bases (18 of 33).
At times, that became a problem. If Turner and Soto didn’t both produce, the team had little chance of success. And even when they both did damage at the plate, it often wasn’t enough.
Did that leave these two players feeling added pressure to deliver, knowing their team desperately needed everything they could offer on any given night?
“I don’t know if we necessarily felt the pressure last year, but we definitely wanted to win a few more games than we did,” Turner said. “I think this year, we’re deeper. We have more talent in general. And if we can stay healthy, we’re going to have a much better offense, at least.”
The Nats are banking on newcomers Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber, plus the return of Starlin Castro from injury and Zimmerman from his opt-out decision, to help lengthen their lineup and take some of the heat off Turner and Soto. But it’s still safe to say that as the two big boys go, so will go this offense.
There’s certainly no lack of respect from one toward the other. Turner gushed about Soto when speaking to reporters Tuesday, first about his character off the field and then about his intimidating presence in the batter’s box.
“He’s not scared of anything,” Turner said of his 22-year-old teammate. “That’s hard to do, especially at a young age. He doesn’t care if he’s 0-for-10 and he’s got to get up there in the ninth inning, bases loaded, two outs and down by a run. He’s excited for all that stuff.
“Some people try and fake it, but he truly isn’t scared of those things, those moments. And he seems to perform. Every single time he gets that chance, he seems to lock it in even more so and kind of delivers.”
Is it true, Juan? Are you really never scared at the plate?
“For me, why do we got to be scared?” Soto said with a bit of a laugh. “If I made (an) out, it’s OK. I’ve got another one. For me, I will never be scared. I don’t mind who is on the mound or whatever. I just try to concentrate, and I like that. I like the big moments. When I was a child, I always played a lot of tournaments. It was a lot of pressure, and I loved it. Since I was a kid, I even loved all the moments, all those moments like that.”
Like all the aforementioned stars who have come through the franchise over the last 17 years, a decision is approaching for Turner and Soto. Will they stay in D.C. for the long haul the way Zimmerman and Strasburg did? Or will they depart and create a new identity elsewhere the way Harper and Rendon did?
And if one stays, will the other as well? Can the Turner-Soto Era of Nationals baseball last more than a few seasons and become one of the truly definitive eras of franchise history?
“I would love it, obviously,” Turner said. “I would love to play here, and anytime that guy is on your team ... I definitely don’t want him on the other team. So let’s keep him as long as possible. I haven’t necessarily talked to him about long term. But we know that both of us enjoy playing together. ...
“We have a great relationship. It goes without saying that we’d love to play with each other for a long time.”