Instead, across five at-bats, he tapped a full-count infield single and scored in the third, poked another to center in the fifth that brought Trea Turner in on an error and crossed home again later that inning, grinning his way to the dugout. Then he tacked on an RBI by legging out a fielder’s choice in the sixth.
That connected him to three of the runs that supported Joe Ross, who yielded four hits and struck out five in six scoreless innings (giving him 11 scoreless to start the year). And it all helped Washington (3-6) win its first series.
“I just tried to touch the ball, forget about everything else,” Soto said of facing Cardinals veteran Adam Wainwright. “I know there’s a great pitcher on the mound. He has amazing pitches. I don’t try to do too much. Just put the ball in play.”
Easy enough, then. Soto left St. Louis with a .474 on-base percentage in 38 plate appearances. That is a stunning number that doesn’t mean too much April 14. The sample is still tiny. It includes 12 hits (two homers) and six walks (two intentional). But the early production prompts a familiar question: When, within reason, will teams stop pitching to him altogether?
Within reason is a subjective threshold. Soto has the ability to bend it more than most. On Monday and Tuesday, though, the Cardinals (6-6) attacked him — at least more often than not — and paid. Soto had three singles and a walk in the opener. In the second game, a 14-3 loss, he tagged ace Jack Flaherty with an RBI double that rocketed off his bat.
The four hits traveled at 113.2, 109.9, 108.4 and 105.8 mph. In Soto’s second at-bat of the week, Cardinals starter John Gant showed one way for teams to approach Soto in a high-leverage situation: give him little to no chance at contact. Josh Bell, then batting fourth behind Soto, struck out to strand two runners. Yet Bell, Kyle Schwarber, Trea Turner or Ryan Zimmerman are each better protection than Soto had while walking 28 times in 92 plate appearances last September.
So that’s the conundrum for opposing teams. Go at Soto and cross your fingers. Or avoid him and calculate the cost. In a lineup tweak for the finale, Manager Dave Martinez batted Soto second between Turner and Zimmerman. Bell had the day off, and Victor Robles, who had led off the previous eight games, dropped to ninth in the order. Martinez couldn’t square ending a tight loss with Soto in the on-deck circle.
“I like the fact that, late in the game, he gets that extra at-bat,” Martinez said of moving Soto from third to second. “I’ve been around a lot of years and watched the top of the ninth, the bottom of the ninth, you’re down or you’re ahead some runs, and sometimes your best hitter is on deck and doesn’t have a chance to hit that last at-bat. So it gives us an opportunity to get him up there.”
This time, it wouldn’t come to that. In his first matchup with Soto on Wednesday, Wainwright pounded him inside — throwing two cutters and a change-up — before evening the count to 2-2 with a looping curve. Next Soto swung through a low fastball, looked back at catcher Yadier Molina’s mitt and shook his head. He got a rare four-seamer in the zone and missed it. He had to self correct.
Their next meeting started with fastball, change-up, curve and cutter, all at or below Soto’s knees. The count was 3-1 after Wainwright dropped in the curve for a called strike. But Soto swung at the next one — right on the bottom edge of the zone — and whiffed. He even looked a bit off balance. Then he bounced a curve for an infield single against the shift, forcing Nolan Arenado to make a desperate barehanded attempt. And Zimmerman, the next hitter, followed with a two-run homer.
“He’s on base, it seems, like six out of 10 times. I enjoy hitting with people on base,” Zimmerman said with a laugh. “But it’s also important to have a guy like me or [Bell] or [Schwarber] or whoever’s going to hit behind him to make the other team pitch to him. He’s one of the best hitters in the game.”
By the fifth, Ross was cruising and in little need of a cushion. But Turner led off with a double and Soto adjusted to Wainwright’s breaking ball. He battled to another full count, slicing a sinker into the seats beyond third base. That’s when Wainwright let Soto see a seventh curve, then watched it splash onto the center field grass. Lane Thomas booted the routine play, allowing Turner to score. Soto never broke stride on his way to third.
When he came up with the bases loaded in the sixth, there was a chance to bury the Cardinals for good. Yet Soto topped a grounder and, sprinting out of the box, kept them from turning two. Only one run was hung on reliever Jordan Hicks’s line, and that almost felt like mercy.