“I feel like in the last 24 hours,” Astros catcher Martin Maldonado said following his team’s 5-4 loss to the Nationals in Game 1 on Tuesday night, “I’ve seen Soto more than my wife.”
That is unlikely to change anytime soon, now that the Astros have seen Soto in person — and watched him go 3 for 4 with a homer, a double and a stolen base in a historic World Series debut. If anything, it will be even more difficult for the Astros to escape Soto’s image, because he is certain to be a nightly fixture in their dreams — a nightmare of a hitter, blasting screaming drives to all parts of Minute Maid Park.
“He was the key guy we couldn’t control tonight,” Astros Manager A.J. Hinch said. “His bat-speed is electric. … He’s calm in the moment. Clearly, this is not too big a stage for him. He was the difference in the game. He’s got that ‘it’ factor. He’s got fast hands. He’s got no fear.”
They are facing another week of this nightmare, give or take a few days, and the outlook for the Astros, who don’t even have a lefty to face him late in games, is less than brilliant. If Soto could destroy the consensus best pitcher on the planet at this moment, Astros ace Gerrit Cole, the way he did Tuesday night, what is he going to do to the rest of their pitchers?
“I mean, he’s really talented,” Cole said after allowing a titanic homer to Soto in the fourth and a two-out, two-run double in the fifth that accounted for the winning margin in the Nationals’ victory.
The Astros, among the most data- and video-driven organizations in the sport, thought they had a solid game plan for pitching to Soto — getting a measure of confirmation in the first inning, when Cole struck him out on a 99-mph four-seam fastball, his hardest of the night, at the upper edge of the strike zone.
But in the fourth, Cole went back upstairs with a 1-0 fastball, and Soto crushed it. The drive sailed atop the train tracks high above the facade of the stadium in left-center, Soto’s opposite field, an estimated 417 feet away. A “tip-your-cap situation,” as Cole put it, and because Soto is just the fourth player to hit a home run in the World Series before turning 21, that ball is headed to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Understand: Cole’s four-seamer was literally the best pitch in baseball in 2019, at least as measured by FanGraphs’ pitch-values metric, which values that pitch as having saved 36.2 runs above average this season. (The second most valuable pitch was teammate Justin Verlander’s slider at 33.4.) According to Statcast data, Cole got 253 swings-and-misses with his four-seamer this season; no other pitcher in the majors got more than 200 with that pitch.
“Gerrit Cole throwing a high fastball up and away — that’s not easy to [hit],” Hinch said.
Asked whether he had ever seen a left-handed hitter hit a ball to that part of Minute Maid Park, Maldonado thought he probably had once or twice. But had anyone done it against Cole?
“No,” he said, “I don’t think nobody’s ever done that.”
The next time Cole faced Soto, with runners on first and third in the fifth inning and the Nationals leading 3-2, the at-bat evolved, over the course of six tension-building pitches, into an epic confrontation with an equally epic result.
Having been burned on his fastball by Soto’s massive homer the inning before, Cole conspicuously stayed away from it this time — and also stayed away from the strike zone, throwing three straight breaking balls, a slider and two curves, for balls. Twice, Soto performed his patented “Soto Shuffle,” sweeping his spikes through the dirt of his batter’s box with theatrical force and glaring out at Cole.
On the fourth pitch, Cole threw another slider that Soto, who appeared to be taking all the way on 3-0, took for a strike, and on the fifth, he unveiled for the first time his change-up. Soto swung through it, then nodded slowly toward the mound.
By this point, Cole had shown Soto every pitch in his repertoire, and when he went back to the slider, throwing it on the lower third of the plate, Soto lashed it into left for a two-run double.
“The wrong location to the wrong guy,” Maldonado said. “That was pretty much the game. … The only pitch that bothered me, that wasn’t that good, was the slider. That was the at-bat of the game. We were trying to get a strikeout. That guy’s good. He’s really good. He’s been amazing, what he’s done for a young guy like that.”
The Astros also dropped the first game of the American League Championship Series at home to the New York Yankees, but this feels more damaging, and the situation more desperate. For one thing, the Yankees beat Zack Greinke in that Game 1, the Astros’ No. 3 starter, and not the great Cole — who pitched (and won) Game 3, and who would have started Game 7 had it been necessary.
And for another thing, the Yankees simply didn’t have a hitter who worried them the same way Soto does. For the most part, the Yankees’ hitters could all be pitched to, at least to a certain degree — from dangerous but strikeout-prone sluggers such as Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez to brilliant young second baseman Gleyber Torres, who paced the Yankees offense but didn’t dominate the series.
Those Yankees hitters have something else in common: They are all right-handed. The Yankees’ lineup was heavily weighted to the right side — with few left-handed threats — which made it relatively easy for the Astros to deploy a roster consisting of only right-handed pitchers.
It might have made sense for the Astros to add a lefty to their roster for the World Series specifically for the purpose of facing Soto late in games — as the Los Angeles Dodgers did with specialist Adam Kolarek and the St. Louis Cardinals did with Andrew Miller, with varying degrees of success.
But the Astros didn’t really have similar options. The lefty relievers who finished the regular season with them, Framber Valdez and Cionel Perez, were not seen as legitimate candidates for the postseason roster and were sent home after the regular season ended. Wade Miley, a veteran left-handed starter, was given some consideration — but he struggled down the stretch and wasn’t seen as possessing the skill set necessary to serve as a lefty specialist to face Soto.
“We have our roster, and I love our roster,” Hinch said before the game. “And I love the fact that we have some righties who do very, very well against lefties. … When you look at Soto as an example, he handles left-handed pitching and he handles right-handed pitching. Giving him different looks at critical moments in the game is a challenge in its own right. The fact that we don’t have a lefty to give them one of those looks is just a reality that we’ve dealt with for a long time.”
But one can only wonder what the Astros are thinking now — now that they have faced Soto, and now that he has cost them a World Series game, and now that he has moved from the fronts of their brains, where he lives in video images and data-backed game plans, to the back, where he will live in their dreams for the next week or so.