Since the Washington Nationals began this road trip Monday in Miami, Soto has reached base 16 of the 20 times he has walked to the batter’s box. Against the Reds, using Great American Ball Park as his playground, he walked, singled, homered and homered again. The walk gave him 131 for the season, setting a club record that had been held by Bryce Harper. And going back to Tuesday, Soto has a walk or a hit in 10 consecutive plate appearances, tying a club record set by Nick Johnson in 2009.
The results, in chronological order: double, double, homer, walk, single, walk, walk, single, homer, homer. That has helped raise his MLB-high on-base percentage to .470, his MLB-best batting average to .325 and his on-base-plus-slugging percentage to 1.029, trailing only Harper (1.050) for best in the majors.
Welcome, then, to the thick of the MVP race, Washington. Maybe get comfortable.
“I played with a guy that was pretty impressive in his day, and that was Barry [Bonds],” Manager Dave Martinez said after his team’s third straight victory. “If he keeps going the way he’s going, if you compare anybody to Barry, it would be Juan right now.”
Otherwise, Patrick Corbin turned in a sharp outing to soften his dismal year. Each of his seven strikeouts came on a low slider. That the Reds were swinging and missing at that pitch, whiffing on 13 of 25 tries, was a huge step for Corbin, who lowered his ERA from 6.17 to 5.92.
For most of 2021, he has missed his effective slider, a not-so-secret weapon that he threw 44 times Thursday. The deception typically comes from fastball command that also has been lacking (to put it politely). But like in his far better seasons, Corbin used the slider to wiggle out of trouble against the Reds.
He threw nine consecutive balls, walking Jonathan India and Tyler Stephenson, to load the bases with one out in the third. He rebounded by striking out Nick Castellanos and Joey Votto to end the threat. Votto had not struck out in 23 plate appearances before doing so in his first two matchups with Corbin. Then Corbin finished the fifth, sixth and his night with punchouts, beating Castellanos, Eugenio Suárez and pinch hitter Aristides Aquino in those cases.
When bench coach Tim Bogar pulled him after 6⅔ innings and 99 pitches, it concluded Corbin’s first scoreless start since April 20. His final line consisted of four hits and four walks. Mason Thompson entered behind him and struck out India to strand a runner on third. Tanner Rainey handled the next three outs with little fuss. Kyle Finnegan yielded two runs in the ninth before holding on for a rocky save.
“Repeating my delivery, I thought it was the most consistent slider I’ve had all year,” Corbin said. “So that was a good sign. ... I was just pleased with how consistent it was. I felt good on both sides of the plate.”
And what’s it like playing on the same team as Earth’s hottest hitter?
“I mean, he’s got to be up there in MVP votes, if not the MVP,” Corbin answered. “It’s pretty incredible what he’s doing, to only see a pitch or two each game and put a swing on it like that. Guys are pitching around him, he’s on base all the time, and I’m lucky I don’t have to face him.”
In the sixth, facing Reds starter Luis Castillo, Soto fell behind 0-2 by taking a fastball and a slider on the outer half. From there, he fouled off two pitches, a heater and a change-up, before whacking a 99-mph sinker out to left. The homer nicked the top of the fence and bounced over. Some 11,000 in the ballpark sighed.
And when Soto dug in in the seventh, reliever Luis Cessa had retired 27 straight batters, the longest streak for a Reds pitcher since at least 1957. But Soto battled to a full count and snaked a fastball inside the left field foul pole. Another sigh. An immovable object and an unstoppable force.
“I just try to touch the ball,” Soto said. “When I get to those 98s down and hit it that way, it’s just amazing. I think my swing is right on time, right on point.”
After each of his recent at-bats, the stat heads have scrambled for historical and Hall of Fame comparisons. Here’s one from the good folks at Baseball-Reference: In his past 16 games, Soto is 29 for 54 with 19 walks, four doubles, a triple and five homers. That’s good for a .537 batting average, .653 on-base percentage and .926 slugging percentage.
The previous player to hit .500/.650/.900 in a 16-game stretch?
Yeah, that would be Barry Bonds in 2004.