Juan Soto had little impact on the Nationals’ 6-2 victory Sunday in Pittsburgh. He didn’t drive in any runs. He scored only once. He took only one at-bat with a runner on base. He made no notable plays in right field.
And yet the young star still had one of the best individual performances of the day, which it turns out was just like so many other performances he’s delivered this season.
With two walks, a triple and a double over five plate appearances, Soto reached base four times. It’s the 19th time this season he’s done that this season, five more than any other player in the majors.
Rarely has a player combined patience with production when the opportunity arises like the 22-year-old has this year.
“When he accepts his walks and stays in the zone, he’s going to hit the ball hard,” manager Davey Martinez said in his postgame Zoom session with reporters. “And I’m proud of him. Like I’ve said to him: ‘Take your walks. Take your walks. Take your walks.’ And he’s been doing it.”
Soto now sports a .457 on-base percentage, best in the majors by 36 points. Since the All-Star break, he’s reached base at a .528 clip. If he can maintain that rate through the season’s final three weeks, he’d become only the sixth player ever to produce that high an on-base percentage during the second half of a season, joining Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Ted Williams, Barry Bonds and Joey Votto.
Then consider that Soto is reaching base at such a high rate while also slugging .663 since the All-Star break.
“You look back at what he’s done early in his career, he’s a very polished hitter, as we all know,” Martinez said. “When he can get on base like he does and take his walks, and then when he gets a good pitch to hit and hits them like he’s been hitting them, that only tells you what a good hitter he is.”
* He doesn’t have Soto’s track record quite yet, but Lane Thomas has been nearly as productive since joining the Nationals last month. Seriously.
With a three-run, opposite-field homer during Sunday’s win over the Pirates, Thomas added yet another notch to his growing list of significant contributions in a short amount of time. The 26-year-old outfielder is now batting .305 with 18 runs, six doubles, two triples, four homers, 16 RBIs, a .396 on-base percentage, .537 slugging percentage and .933 OPS across 111 plate appearances.
The Nationals thought they were getting a promising young hitter when they acquired Thomas from the Cardinals for Jon Lester, but they viewed him as more of a contact hitter with some occasional pop. Instead, he’s proving he can hit for real power to all fields, surprising everyone in the process.
“We knew he had good bat-to-ball skills,” Martinez said. “Pull power? Yeah. We thought he could drive some balls. But going the other way is awesome. It’s good to see. We talk a lot about him utilizing the whole field. When we first saw him take batting practice, he was very pull-happy. We tried to get him to use the other side of the field, and he’s done it well. To see him hit the ball the other way like that, that’s a great sign.”
* After watching his pitching staff issue a staggering 10 walks during Saturday’s loss - all of them coming in the game’s first six innings - Martinez felt the need to gather everyone together Sunday and broach the subject in a formal setting.
The fourth-year manager, though, wanted to be careful not to simply berate his pitchers for their command struggles, lest he add unnecessary pressure and only make the task harder for them the next time they take the mound.
“This is the reason I want them to speak and have the conversation,” Martinez said. “I don’t want to come off as: ‘Hey, you’ve gotta throw strikes!’ That’s not what this is about. I want to hear from them. For me, it’s about getting on the same page as them. I might hear something from them that (sounds like) an easy fix. But I want each and every one of those guys to speak up today. And we’ll just talk about it. Hey, it happens. Nobody’s perfect. Don’t try to be perfect. I don’t want perfect. I want consistency. Hopefully, we’ll get it right.”
Did they? Well, Patrick Corbin issued only two walks during a strong, seven-inning start. But Mason Thompson entered for the bottom of the eighth and immediately walked the first batter he faced. Martinez wound up pulling him after he faced the mandatory three batters and summoning de facto closer Kyle Finnegan for a five-out save.