A big hit

Juan Soto, the surprise of the Nationals’ season, is here to stay

A big hit

Juan Soto, the surprise of the Nationals’ season, is here to stay
After an unexpected call-up by the Nationals at age 19, Juan Soto has a legitimate case for NL rookie of the year, which will be announced on Monday. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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Juan Soto does this at least once a game, in the first inning or the ninth, after home runs or infield singles, in moments that scream about his promise and potential or others that could seem so easy to forget.

With thousands of people around him — each hanging on the flick of his bat, the flight of his hits, wondering what the outfielder may do next — Soto presses his batting gloves together, kisses the tips of his fingers, raises his hands to the sky and thanks God.

After an unexpected call-up by the Nationals at age 19, Juan Soto has a legitimate case for NL rookie of the year, which will be announced on Monday. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

In those moments, he is not just thinking about his father and mother and brother and sister. He thinks about his grandmother, his grandfather, the nine uncles on his mom’s side, the three uncles on his dad’s side, everyone back in the Dominican Republic, in the Herrera neighborhood of Santo Domingo, who is pulling for him to succeed. He thinks about four years ago, on a dusty field in Villa Mella, when the other 15-year-old baseball players were taller, stronger, thinner, and how he never felt further from his dream.

Then Soto thinks about running until sundown, hitting until his hands throbbed, being spotted by a Washington Nationals scout on a lazy Sunday, signing for $1.5 million at 16, missing almost an entire season with injuries at 18, getting called up by the Nationals at 19, in May, and playing so well that many believe he could win the National League rookie of the year award when it’s announced next week.

“It’s really crazy,” he said, rubbing his forehead, a month before he turned 20 in late October. “I just never thought this would happen.”

But it did, and Juan Soto thinks about that all the time.

Soto had plenty of big hits as a rookie, such as this two-run double to help lift the Nationals over the Orioles in June. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Word trickled to Matthew LeCroy in the fifth inning of the first of game of a doubleheader on May 19.

LeCroy, the manager of the Nationals’ Class AA affiliate, the Harrisburg Senators, stood in the visiting dugout of The Diamond in Richmond. Soto was in left field against the Richmond Flying Squirrels. That would soon change. Soto was going to the major leagues.

“We knew he was special,” LeCroy said. “But I didn’t think he’d be leaving us quite yet.”

Before Soto finished a standout major league rookie season with 121 hits, 22 home runs, 70 RBI, 77 runs, 79 walks and a .292 average in 116 games, he used power and patience to tear through the Nationals’ system with historic speed. He was not expected to be a midseason call-up for at least another season or two. He had played in just 83 professional games heading into 2018 and was sidelined the year before after fracturing his ankle and undergoing surgery on his left hand.

But Patrick Anderson, the manager of the Nationals’ low-A affiliate, the Hagerstown Suns, once watched Soto face a rickety, unpredictable pitching machine and still have a sense of where each pitch was going. Soto hit .373 and drove in 24 runs for the Suns last season. After just 16 games, he was promoted to the high-A Potomac Nationals.

Potomac Manager Tripp Keister noticed that once Soto joined the team, the rest of the lineup mimicked the teenager’s discipline at the plate. Soto hit seven home runs in 62 at-bats in Potomac. After just 15 games, he was promoted to play for LeCroy and the Senators.

All LeCroy needed to see was Soto taking batting practice to know why he was darting from one level to the next. Soto had a purpose with each swing. He sprayed balls to every part of the outfield, not just left, center and right but in the gaps and down the lines, too. And it was hitting, just like this, one pitch after another, that made Soto fall in love with baseball in the first place.

“Hit, hit, hit, hit,” Soto says now, miming his left-handed swing with an invisible bat. “I could never get enough of it.”

Soto played 39 games in two seasons at Class A Hagerstown. (Colleen McGrath/Associated Press)
Soto hit .371 in 15 games for Potomac at the Class A-Advanced level before another call-up. (Diamond Images/Getty Images)
His stay in Class AA Harrisburg was a brief eght games before the Nationals called on his services. (Mike Janes/Associated Press)
Soto's rise through the Nationals' minor league system in 2018 was unprecedented. He played 16 games in Class A Hagerstown, 15 in Class A-Advanced Potomac and just eight in Class AA Harrisburg before the Nationals called him up in May. (Associated Press and Getty Images)

Growing up in Santo Domingo, Soto trailed his father to the neighborhood field whenever he could. His father, also named Juan Jose Soto, was a catcher in a local men’s league. The young Soto watched from behind home plate, a tiny bat in hand, begging for the games to end. Once they did and the small crowds melted into the warm Dominican evenings, the father pitched to his 5-year-old son until his arm tired or the daylight disappeared.

When they got home, Soto screwed caps off glass soda bottles and asked his father to lob them his way in the living room. He swung with the bottle and sent the caps pinging off the walls and floor. As he grew older, and few scouts approached, and baby fat still hung on his frame like a life jacket, it was hitting that kept him hopeful. If he could hit, the scouts would come. If he could hit, someone would sign him to play baseball in the United States.

And then he kept hitting for the Senators this past spring while, in Washington, the National lost outfielder after outfielder to the disabled list. Victor Robles, the organization’s top prospect going into the season, was already out with an elbow injury. Then Adam Eaton got hurt, and so did Brian Goodwin and Rafael Bautista, and finally Howie Kendrick in the middle of May.

Johnny DiPuglia, the Nationals’ vice president of international operations, called General Manager Mike Rizzo to see who might be called up in Kendrick’s spot. DiPuglia remembered the conversation going like this:

“What’s up with Howie?” DiPuglia asked.

“He tore his Achilles’, he’ll be done for the year,” Rizzo said. “What do you think we should do?”

DiPuglia knew his answer, but also thought it might sound crazy. Soto was 19 and had played just eight games above high-A. Bryce Harper, once a teenage star himself, played 37 games for the Senators and 21 more for the Class AAA Syracuse Chiefs before he was called up by the Nationals at 19. Even Ken Griffey Jr., one of the brightest prodigies in baseball history, played 17 games in Class AAbefore making his major league debut in 1989.

So DiPuglia waited, letting a few seconds of silence pass, so Rizzo could say it himself.

“We’re going to bring up Juan Soto,” Rizzo concluded, and that was next relayed to the rest of the front office and Manager Dave Martinez and LeCroy during that doubleheader in Richmond.

LeCroy didn’t have time to call Soto into the manager’s office. So he walked into the cramped visitors’ clubhouse as the players ate a quick between-games meal, and he told everyone to quiet down.

“Mr. Soto is going to the show!” LeCroy yelled, pointing to a confused Soto at his locker, and before Soto could even smile, his teammates and coaches were mobbing him as if he had hit a walk-off home run. Soto had to pack fast, throwing his gloves and cleats into a duffel bag. He was in a car bound for Washington before the second game began.

After just a week with the Senators, he was on his way.

“And I knew something right then,” LeCroy said a few months later. “Juan Soto wasn’t coming back to the minor leagues.”

Soto homered on the first pitch of his first start and then was celebrated for it after the Nationals' 10-2 win over the Padres on May 21. (Nick Wass/Associated Press)

The initial plan was to ease Soto into the lineup with scattered at-bats against right-handed pitchers.

Then came the first pitch of his first plate appearance in his first career start on May 21, a waist-high fastball he crushed 422 feet over the left-center field wall at Nationals Park.

That made Soto the first teenager to homer in a major league game since Harper in 2012, and he raced around the bases with a straight face until his emotions cracked. He allowed a shy grin as he rounded third base. His parents cheered from the stands, and he pointed at them, his smile wider now, before ducking into the dugout. Players at the Nationals’ academy in the Dominican Republic leaped and screamed in front of the television some 1,500 milesaway.

The manager’s approach changed.

“Oh, he’s ready,” Martinez remembered thinking as the ball cleared the fence, and he soon penciled Soto in for 57 consecutive starts in left field.

There were a few growing pains. But they were all minute, coming and going like a slight breeze, compared to each new feat. On June 13, he announced himself in New York with a pair of home runs at Yankee Stadium. On June 29, he hit two more homers against the Philadelphia Phillies and became the youngest player since 2000 to have four hits, a home run and five RBI in the same game. On Sept. 1, he was asked how he had ended a short slump, and he smirked while saying, “Just keep doing Juan Soto things.”

Hit, hit, hit, hit.
I could never get enough of it.
Juan Soto

Three days later, he passed Hall of Famer Mel Ott for the most walks by a teenager since 1900. Seven days after that, he passed Griffey on the single-season home run list for teenagers. His 22 home runs this season tied Harper for the second-most by a teenager in baseball history. Advanced statistics suggest he may be one of baseball’s best teenage hitters. Not just in 2018. Ever.

“If you analyze some of the at-bats that he has had, I don’t know how he does it,” DiPuglia said in September. “He is getting pitched in the big leagues at 19 like he has played in the All-Star Game eight times.”

At Citizens Bank Park in mid-September, before a series against the Phillies, Max Scherzer chatted with a small crowd of reporters in front of his locker. Someone brought up facing Soto with two strikes. Scherzer’s face lit up.

The Nationals ace looked across the visitors’ clubhouse at Soto, sitting by his stall with ear buds in, scrolling through his iPhone. Then the veteran shook his head.

“There is no one way to approach Juan late in counts,” said Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young Award winner. “He can hit the ball anywhere.”

The next night, Soto crushed a go-ahead solo home run in the 10th inning of an eventual win. It was his second of the game and he hit another into the upper deck a day later. He took his time rounding the bases, savoring each step as rain spit onto the field, and when he crossed home plate he pressed his hands together, kissed the tips of his fingers, raised his arms to the sky and thanked God.

Philadelphia crowds reserve their trademark anger for opposing superstars and players who burn the Phillies again and again. And so Juan Soto was booed.

Soto, in his native Dominican Republic last winter, just wants to stay in the majors in 2019. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Soto had a cold, and it was getting colder outside, and it would not stop raining, and he missed his family.

“It’s time to go home now,” he said, wearing a hooded sweatshirt and leggings in the Nationals Park clubhouse. “I never have been away this long. I usually go back at the start of September. I’m so excited to see them all.”

It was Sept. 23, a day after the Nationals were officially eliminated from playoff contention, and seven days before the end of their season. The Nationals hope, no matter what happens with Harper’s free agency this winter, that Soto becomes a franchise cornerstone in the outfield, that his rookie season is only the beginning, that in the future, maybe as soon as next year, he will have to wait until after October to head home.

But he was back in the Dominican Republic at the start of this fall, for barbecues at his uncle’s house, his younger brother’s baseball games, to relax for as long as he will allow himself. He is now in Japan, on a week-long tour with a handful of major league stars, and will find out Monday if he edged Atlanta Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr. for NL rookie of the year. Then he will start working toward his next goal.

“I want to come back and just stay up here,” Soto said. “Try to stay up here in the major leagues when I come back for spring training.”

Octavio Martinez, the Nationals’ bullpen catcher and interpreter, laughed from a few feet away. There were a few quiet moments when it seemed like Soto may offer a loftier plan given all he had done in the last four months. But he didn’t. He did not smile. He did not take his eyes off the carpet in front of him.

Because all Juan Soto wants, all he’s ever wanted, is a chance.

Credits: Story by Jesse Dougherty. Designed by Brianna Schroer. Photo Editing by Thomas Simonetti.