Soto had done to himself what the rest of the baseball world did to him throughout the playoffs. But the phenom’s postseason performance was unsurprising to those who watched the Nationals this year. Here, on the national stage, he had risen to the moment: clutch hits late in elimination games, the youngest player ever to homer three times in one World Series, an unusual display of confidence. He did things that defied expectation for any ballplayer, especially one as young as him. His actions often left those watching without words, so they turned to numbers, and his age (21) was repeated until it had basically become a meme.
A bat has always defined Soto. He now uses an Old Hickory AJ25, maple and 34 inches, but used to swing whatever he could find. Hitting got him noticed as a kid in the Dominican Republic. It got the Nationals to sign him at 16 for $1.5 million, a franchise record on the international market. It got him from rookie ball to the majors in less than two years, and he bypassed Class AAA altogether. He became so dangerous that teams eventually took the bat out of his hands. The Astros, adherent to analytics, hadn’t intentionally walked a single batter all season — until Soto forced them to do so in Game 176.
Perhaps the most remarkable part of his postseason was how he evolved over the course of it. Soto was typically timely in the wild-card game — a game-winning hit in the eighth — but then he slid. Through nine postseason games, his batting average was just .206, though the hitter who struggles against left-handers and sliders snapped out of his funk to tie the do-or-die NLDS Game 5 on a slider from perhaps the greatest left-handed pitcher of his generation (Clayton Kershaw). He later spent one long night in the batting cage to bust the slump. The adjustments transformed him into, by the numbers, the best hitter in the World Series. He had changed by staying the same. This October, up then down then up again, was basically his career compressed into a month.
The national stage seemed to relax him. Soto admitted one day during the playoffs that his peculiar, between-pitch routine — licking his lips, swiping his feet, grabbing his crotch — wasn’t for the reason he initially claimed. The Soto Shuffle was less tic, more tactic; the young hitter wanted to intimidate pitchers. The approach clashed with the hallowed “unwritten rules” of baseball, and one pitcher who got him out grabbed his crotch back at Soto. But the shuffle became a focal point, and some fans began to focus on his takes as much as his hits.
One at-bat of the postseason perhaps best captured Soto. Astros pitcher Justin Verlander, probably a future Hall of Famer, challenged him in the fifth inning of Game 6 up and in with a fastball. Soto shuffled and chirped. Verlander tried again on the next pitch, and Soto hit a moonshot. Then Soto possessed the wherewithal to follow the lead-seizing, series-changing shot by carrying his bat to first base. The move appeared to troll Houston’s Alex Bregman, who had done the same earlier, but Soto apparently didn’t intend to. He had seen Bregman’s move and said he thought: “That was pretty cool. I want to do that.’ ” The blast, the innocence, the showmanship — it was all Soto. It could be his enduring moment.
One video of the home run, though, stands out. It’s not him mic’d up on the field. It’s not the pitcher’s mortified reaction. It’s not a side-by-side comparison of bat-carries to first base. It’s a scene captured in the Dominican Republic showing two of Soto’s childhood coaches. They leap off a couch and scream and clap and cry. One of them falls to his knees, tilts his head skyward and thanks God.
The scene didn’t only play out there. Soto’s magical playoff run seemed to bring together those who knew him best, and those who didn’t know him at all.