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Juan Soto was supposed to be two years away, but he’s shown he belongs right now

Juan Soto has already shown that he belongs. (Lynne Sladky/Associated Press)
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Juan Soto ambled through the Washington Nationals clubhouse Wednesday morning in a pair of Curry 5s, a backpack slung over one shoulder, a sense of comfort visible. He quietly greeted Ryan Zimmerman, 14 years his senior, with a “good morning” and found a package when he reached his locker. Inside was a small trophy, a keepsake for being named South Atlantic League player of the month for April. A public-relations official snapped a photo of him with it. He blew that Class A league, four rungs below the majors, to smithereens. It might as well have been a decade ago.

A few hours later, Soto was batting fifth and playing left field against the Tampa Bay Rays at Nationals Park. He finished 2 for 4 with a walk, helping propel his club to an easy win with another baffling demonstration of poise and maturity. It was June 6, a month and three days after he won that player of the month award, and Soto, the youngest player in the big leagues, emerged with a .346 batting average and .981 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 16 games. At 19 years old, Soto is playing every day and tormenting pitching at the highest level.

“I never thought that it would be like this, that it would go this well,” Soto said in Spanish. “I didn’t expect it to go like this.”

Soon, perhaps as early as Friday, the Nationals will activate Adam Eaton, the club’s Opening Day left fielder, from the disabled list. As it stands, the question isn’t whether Eaton will take Soto’s spot on the roster, but how Soto will split playing time with Eaton, Bryce Harper, Michael A. Taylor and Brian Goodwin. He’s already proved he belongs.

Josh Johnson wanted to get his point across before the conversation started. He had to make sure it was crystal clear.

“That’s my man,” Johnson said outside the visitors’ clubhouse at Nationals Park. “The first guy I managed to get to the big leagues. And let me tell you, his makeup and character are better than his talent.”

It was by pure coincidence that Johnson, the San Diego Padres’ infield coach, was in the visitors’ dugout May 21 when Soto slugged his first career home run on the first pitch in his first major league start, a hair-raising moment to match the hype preceding the teenager. Johnson was filled with mixed feelings. On the one hand, he was the opponent. On the other, the former longtime minor leaguer was on Soto’s side.

From D.C. to the Dominican Republic: Watch Juan Soto’s academy teammates react to his first home run

Johnson was a mentor as Soto’s first manager in the United States, in the Gulf Coast League, affiliated baseball’s basement, the past two seasons. He first laid eyes on the Dominican during extended spring training in 2016. He watched Soto step into the batter’s box and barrel baseballs against everyone. Fellow teenagers. Major league rehabbers. Minor league rehabbers. Over and over. It didn’t matter. He sprayed balls to all fields and his remarkable strike-zone discipline, an innate ability to lay off bad pitches, was obvious.

So was his makeup, the ambiguous catchall term baseball people use to describe a player’s perceived mental abilities. Whatever it is, everyone within the Nationals organization has sworn Soto’s is off the charts. Johnson was one of them. He saw Soto rip through Rosetta Stone to learn English quicker than anyone he could remember and doggedly grind rehabbing from two injuries that limited him to 32 games last season. It flabbergasted him.

“You can’t express how impressive that was,” Johnson said. “I guess it was like a breath of fresh air, the way he goes about his business.”

Still, Soto wasn’t on the major league radar before this season, not with just 83 games on his professional résumé. He was the Nationals’ consensus No. 2 prospect, but he was a couple of years away. Fellow outfielder Victor Robles, Washington’s five-tool top prospect, was supposed to be next in line. But Robles got hurt playing for Class AAA Syracuse in early April. Then Eaton went down. Then Goodwin. Then Rafael Bautista. Then Howie Kendrick.

As Washington’s outfield depth diminished, Soto was soaring through its farm system. He lasted 16 games with Class A Hagerstown, 15 with Class A Advanced Potomac and eight with Class AA Harrisburg. He combined to hit .362 with 14 home runs and a 1.218 OPS across the three levels. The performance — and Washington’s desperation — prompted the call to the big leagues to complete a stunning rise.

“You know, in the Dominican, the draft isn’t used,” Nationals catcher Pedro Severino, a fellow Dominican, said in Spanish. “But he was a first-rounder for us in the Dominican.”

Like Johnson, Severino vividly recalls the first time he saw Soto play. They were taking batting practice together in the Dominican Republic. Soto, then 15, hadn’t yet signed with the Nationals for $1.5 million. Severino, five years older, couldn’t believe his eyes.

“I was hitting the ball very far, and he was hitting it much farther than I was to center field,” Severino said. “And I was thinking: ‘He can’t be 15. He’s hitting the ball farther than me.’ But he was. It’s just amazing. He’s a youngster who does everything like a more mature player.”

That maturity has carried to the majors, on and off the field. It’s apparent before games when he sits at his locker, listening to music and thumbing through his phone, blending in with the furniture, and when he sees a veteran teammate sign autographs for fans and follows.

“He doesn’t act like a 19-year-old,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said.

It’s noticeable when he times a pitcher perfectly to steal third base and when he alters his approach with two strikes, choking up on his bat and eliminating his stride. Soto, a left-handed batter, hit a game-tying home run that way in Washington’s 14-inning win at the Atlanta Braves on Saturday against a left-handed pitcher.

“I don’t even know if he knows he’s in the big leagues,” Nationals ace Max Scherzer said. “This kid is just coming up and just showing he has an unbelievable eye, knows what he wants to do at the plate and just can get the barrel to the ball. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how old or how young you are. If you have that ability, it doesn’t matter what’s being thrown at you.”

It has been less than two weeks, and Soto — the youngest major leaguer to hit a home run since 2012, and the youngest to draw an intentional walk since Ken Griffey Jr. in 1989 — has surpassed all expectations. Pitchers will make will adjustments as he continues, and he will have to counter. Challenges will arise. But he’s handled the leap thus far. Minors or majors, it’s the same game to him. The biggest difference, he said, is that major league umpires are better — much better than in the South Atlantic League and everywhere else.

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