Another big night from Soto ensures Gray’s first win (updated)

Juan Soto, unquestionably, is having a remarkable season. The Nationals, unquestionably, are not.

And those two facts might just be on a collision course in a week and a half, when members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America have to decide if the latter disqualifies the former from earning their National League MVP vote.

Yes, Soto has very much thrust himself into that age-old debate with his late-season surge at the plate for a team that tonight won its 63rd game, 7-5 over the Marlins, to at least ensure it can’t finish with 100 losses.

With yet another signature performance - 3-for-3, double, homer, two walks, three RBIs - Soto gave all of his stats another boost and furthered his case to win the league’s highest individual honor, even if his team has been out of contention for the last two months and sold off eight veterans at the trade deadline.

At game’s end, Soto owned the NL’s highest batting average (.321) and on-base percentage (.466) while trailing only Bryce Harper in OPS (1.051 to 1.010). He’s got 27 homers, 90 RBIs, 104 runs, 130 walks (tied with Harper for the club single-season record) and all the positive momentum in the world heading into the season’s final 10 games.

“Every time I come to the field, I just try to start over,” he said in his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “It doesn’t matter what just happened last night. I’m just going to come over and grind as hard as I can and try to win games. At the end of the day, it’s fun to win. I love to win. I hate to lose. Every time I come to the field, everything I do, I’m just thinking to win.”

The looming question: Is that enough to earn more MVP votes than Harper, who is putting up comparable numbers for a Phillies club trying to hang on in the NL East race despite a record barely over .500?

Thumbnail image for Soto-Connects-Blue-Sidebar.jpg“You know what? He’s a player that’s having an unbelievable year,” manager Davey Martinez said. “You’re saying it’s the most valuable player. It’s one player. And for me, Juan should have consideration of being that MVP. He’s had a phenomenal year. He’s chasing a batting title. What he’s done and what he’s meant to this team ... he’s carried this team, day in and day out. He means a lot to this club.”

Voters have another week and a half to consider both players’ cases. And the way he’s going right now, that might still provide plenty more time for him to add to his totals.

Whether he wins his first MVP award or not, the 22-year-old Soto has already established himself as one of the best young hitters in baseball history. And tonight’s performance was a microcosm of that.

He ripped a 116.5 mph double to the gap in his first plate appearance. He launched a two-run homer to right his second time up. He walked in his third trip to the plate. He singled home a run and later scored all the way from first on Yadiel Hernandez’s double to left in his fourth at-bat. And then still seeking a triple for the cycle, he was intentionally walked with the Nationals leading by five runs in the top of the eighth.

“For the last month, I’ve been feeling really good,” he said. “I’ve been seeing the ball really well. I’ve been taking my pitches. I’ve been swinging the bat really well. It feels good.”

Soto wound up reaching base five times, but just by reaching four times he joined an ultra-exclusive club of the sport’s greatest hitters. He has now reached base four times in 23 games this season. The only players in modern history to do that in more games: Babe Ruth (four times), Barry Bonds (three), Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle and Wade Boggs.

“It’s funny, because it’s who he is,” Martinez said. “I’ve seen him now for (four) years continue to do the same thing over and over and over. And he’s actually getting better, which is scary. He knows the balls he wants to swing at; he’s ready to hit them. And when he gets them, he smokes them.”

Soto wasn’t alone in producing at the plate tonight for the Nationals. Hernandez and Luis García also homered off Marlins starter Elieser Hernandez, helping ensure their team’s first series win since a two-game sweep of the Blue Jays in mid-August.

They also ensured Josiah Gray would finally get his first major league win in his 11th major league start (ninth for the Nats), though things got hairy in the bottom of the ninth when Ryne Harper allowed two homers to turn a five-run lead into a two-run lead and force Tanner Rainey to enter for an unexpected save situation.

“It’s definitely something that I would think about here and there,” Gray said of his prolonged wait for win No. 1. “But at the end of the day, I just want to go out and pitch well and put the team in position to win. I’m really happy I got that first one tonight, but I tried not to think about it too much and go out there and pitch my ballgame.”

As impressive as he looked in his first five starts (2.89 ERA, 1.107 WHIP), Gray looked quite unimpressive in his most recent four starts (11.42 ERA, 1.962 WHIP). So if it’s possible for these late-September outings to carry significance, this one would certainly qualify.

And early on, it appeared clear Gray was resembling his form from those first five starts. He was commanding his fastball in the zone, he was getting swings and misses off his breaking balls. And when he missed, he did so above or below the strike zone, not to the “arm side” as he so often did in recent games.

It all led to a strong final line for Gray: six innings of two-run ball, with only one walk and eight strikeouts, not to mention 71 of 100 pitches for strikes.

His best work might have come right at the end of his start. Facing his first high-stress inning of the night, Gray allowed three straight one-out hits in the bottom of the sixth. With the tying runners on base and his pitch count rising, the rookie proceeded to strike out Lewin Díaz on a 96-mph fastball and then get Joe Panik to pop up to end the rally with the Nats leading 4-2 and end his night on a high note.

“We had a growing moment in that sixth inning,” Martinez said. “I wanted him to get through that inning, and he did fantastic.”

And thanks to some extra run support from his teammates in the top of the seventh, with Soto once again smack dab in the middle of it all, Gray was comfortably in line for his long-awaited first win.

“I think it’s amazing every night seeing what he does,” Gray said of Soto, who remarkably is a year younger than him. “The way he goes about his business and is prepared for every pitcher and day in and day out taking his walks and swinging at the one or two pitches he might get a night ... it’s amazing. I’m glad he’s on my team and I don’t have to go out there and gameplan for him.”

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