Soto, 22, reached in all five plate appearances in a 7-5 win over the Miami Marlins. He lined a 116.5-mph double in the first inning. He crushed a two-run homer in the third, stalking Elieser Hernández’s first-pitch slider. It seemed that Hernández ignored the scouting report or craves danger. For most of the second half, opponents have walked Soto, over and over, daring Josh Bell or Ryan Zimmerman — or just anyone else, really — to beat them. Hernández chose his own path and paid.
“Well, it just doesn’t seem to matter much what you do with him,” Marlins Manager Don Mattingly said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a guy kind of continuously hit the ball as hard ... and as clean as he does.”
“It’s amazing,” added Josiah Gray, a rookie starter who is a year older than Soto, who has been in the majors for four seasons. “I’m glad he’s on my team and I don’t have to go out there and game plan for him."
“I told our first base coach the other day, he was like, ‘What’s the thing you want to do?’ ” Soto recalled with a smile. “I said: ‘I want to get my OPS over 1.000. I think that would be great for me.’ That’s what I’m most proud of. I’m finally there and just have to keep it there."
The right fielder didn’t act alone in the victory. Gray logged six innings on 100 pitches, stranding two in a tense sixth. His final line included six hits, two earned runs, one walk and eight strikeouts, good for his first career win. Luis García, Washington’s 21-year-old second baseman, smacked a double and 404-foot homer to the second deck in right. Yadiel Hernandez also notched a solo homer and doubled. But again, as he often has this month, Soto wowed when given a chance to hit.
Per usual, there are many ways to describe his stardom, a list of firsts and comparisons with Hall of Famers at his age. But here are two simple facts: Soto finished Wednesday with an MLB-high .466 on-base percentage, more than 30 points better than the next closest player. And his on-base-plus-slugging percentage (1.010) trails only Bryce Harper, a leading National League MVP candidate, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who was recently on pace to win the Triple Crown.
He has kept that sort of elite company since his debut in 2018. He closed the night with an NL-best .321 average, putting him on track for a second straight batting title. Once he was intentionally walked in the eighth, he tied Harper’s club record of 130 free passes in a season. Harper and shortstop Fernando Tatís Jr. are generally put atop the MVP shortlist. But if neither Harper’s Philadelphia Phillies nor Tatís’s San Diego Padres make the playoffs, doesn’t that build a pretty strong case for …
No. Save it for later.
“He’s a player that’s having an unbelievable year," Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “If you’re saying it’s the most valuable player, it’s one player. And for me, Juan should have consideration of being that MVP. ... He’s chasing a batting title. What he’s done and what he’s meant to this team, as you know, he carries this team day in and day out.”
All night, Alcides Escobar made noise in front of Soto, helping the slugger see pitches. The simple calculus is that it’s harder to walk Soto when there are already runners on base. So after Escobar singled in the third, Soto got a low-and-in slider that he rocked for his 27th homer. After Escobar walked in the fifth, Soto got a few close pitches, mostly on the outer half, and walked, too. And after Escobar singled in the seventh, putting runners on first and second, Soto scorched an RBI single off reliever Zach Thompson.
Two batters later, Hernandez sent a double to the corner, and Soto took off. As he rounded second, Lewis Brinson bobbled the ball, leading third base coach Bobby Henley to wave Soto around. He soon slid into home headfirst and rolled in the dirt a bit. Then he popped up with a grin. The late production mattered when reliever Ryne Harper yielded three runs on two homers in the ninth.
“I just try to motivate myself every day, every time I come to the field,” Soto explained. “I just try to start over. It doesn’t matter what happened last day, last night. I’m going to come over and grind as hard as I can, trying to win games. At the end of the day, it’s fun to win. ... I love to win. I hate losing.”
The win ensured that Washington (63-89) can’t reach 100 losses for the first time since 2009. That counts for a very small something. But the top reason to follow this team is Soto, whose at-bats are appointment viewing. He is four homers away from 100 for his career. Since July 30, the day the Nationals’ season was split in two, he has reached base in more than 53 percent of his plate appearances.
He is, in other words, an absolute machine. But that has been clear for a while now.