Victor Robles’ attempt to steal second base during the top of the eighth Friday afternoon in Los Angeles was ill-advised, as both the Nationals center fielder and his manager conceded following their 1-0 loss to the Dodgers.
As Robles correctly noted, in getting caught trying to swipe second with runners on the corners and nobody out, he failed to recognize who was coming to bat behind him: Trea Turner, Juan Soto and Ryan Zimmerman. Especially Soto, who was in the on-deck circle at the time as Turner stood at the plate.
But even if Robles had been safe or never tried to run in the first place, it’s possible the Nationals would’ve found themselves facing the same eventual outcome. Once Turner struck out on a high 98 mph fastball from Blake Treinen, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts held out four fingers and instructed his pitcher to intentionally walk Soto.
It’s the kind of respect Soto is receiving more and more. And it’s only going to get worse if the player who bats behind him can’t consistently make opponents pay for the strategy.
In this case, Zimmerman didn’t make the Dodgers pay. He grounded out to end the inning. And even if Robles was still on base with one out, that ground ball would’ve made for an easy double play to kill the rally.
This isn’t meant as a knock on Zimmerman specifically; he’s enjoyed a strong start to the season following a torrid spring at the plate. But it’s a harsh reminder that in the most critical moments of ballgames, Soto often will not get a chance to swing the bat.
“It’s gonna happen. And Juan, he’s gotta accept it,” Nats manager Davey Martinez said during his postgame Zoom session. “When he does get a chance to swing the bat, he’s been good. He got a couple hits today. Quietly, I know it’s early, but he’s up over .300 (batting) already. He’s gonna get his hits, he’s gonna get his opportunities. And Zim is gonna be able to pick him up. He’s no slouch hitting behind him, either. I was OK with Zim coming up and hitting trying to drive in that run. He hit it hard, just right at somebody.”
Finding adequate protection for Soto is going to be a high priority for Martinez and the Nationals this season. They weren’t equipped to handle it in 2020, especially after Howie Kendrick went down with a hamstring injury and left Asdrúbal Cabrera as the team’s typical No. 3 hitter behind Turner and Soto.
This time around, Soto has been batting third for the Nationals, behind Robles and Turner. It looks like a potentially dynamic trio atop the lineup, but it does leave Soto susceptible to more intentional walks.
The situation may change for the better within days, once Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber are cleared to return from the COVID-19-related injury list. The Nationals envision Bell batting behind Soto and serving as his primary protection, a spot the big first baseman is more than comfortable taking over.
“I take pride in it,” Bell said this spring, comparing it to the brief period when he hit behind Andrew McCutchen in Pittsburgh. “And I feel like being able to hit behind an MVP ... 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.”
But Bell’s not batting behind Soto (or anyone else) yet. And he may not always be the guy to do it.
Martinez flip-flopped Turner and Soto several times during spring training, making Soto his No. 2 hitter and Turner his No. 3 hitter. The thinking is that it brings Soto to the plate more times over the course of a long season and presents Turner with more opportunities with runners in scoring position.
But there’s another rationale for doing it: It might on occasion dissuade an opposing manager from intentionally walking Soto. And even if it doesn’t, it still would leave the Nationals with their best hitter not named Soto at the plate in a big spot.
Maybe this becomes moot once the Nats are fielding a full lineup for the first time this season. But until that happens, they may need to get a little more creative in an attempt to score runs and ensure their best hitters get as many opportunities as possible to hit in key situations.