But in the fifth of 11 innings Friday, in the Washington Nationals’ 8-7 loss the Cincinnati Reds, Amir Garrett decided enough was enough. The Reds reliever bounced a full-count slider, and Soto swung for strike three. Soto’s MLB-best batting average temporarily plummeted to .324. His on-base-plus-slugging percentage sank to 1.029.
Somehow, the Ohio River kept flowing behind the stadium. Somewhere, Ted Williams and Frank “Piggy” Ward clinked beers.
Before Garrett beat Soto, the 22-year-old needed to reach in four more plate appearances to tie the modern record set by Williams in 1957. Ward’s legendary streak, achieved in 1893, was still five away. But in the end, it was not meant to be. Soto fell behind 0-1, then 1-2, then walked back to the dugout in shame, staring at the unmarked barrel of his bat.
“He’s been unbelievable,” Nationals Manager Dave Martinez said. “He’s one of the best when it comes to plate discipline, and you see it every night. It doesn’t shock me that he’s doing what he’s doing.”
Earlier in the contest, Soto walked and scored twice, chugging in on Josh Bell’s double and a single for Keibert Ruiz off Reds starter Sonny Gray. On Bell’s liner to right, Soto wheeled around from first, sliding wide of home before reaching ahead of Tucker Barnhart’s tag. Ruiz, to his credit, launched his first homer for Washington and logged two singles, notching his third multi-hit game of the week.
Alcides Escobar added a solo shot to straightaway center in the third. The pitching just couldn’t hold the lead.
“I’m not trying to do too much. Before I was jumping a little bit, swinging on everything,” Ruiz explained of his recent success. “Right now, I’m trying to focus on just swinging at my pitch until I get to two strikes. That’s what I can control.”
Starter Paolo Espino allowed two homers in five innings: a two-run blast for Max Schrock and a pinch-hit, solo blast for Delino DeShields. Once Espino exited at 86 pitches, Nick Castellanos took Alberto Baldonado deep, knotting the score. And after Baldonado was hooked, having walked Joey Votto on four pitches, more damage followed.
At first, Andrés Machado was helped by sharp defense. Kyle Farmer’s blooper to center turned into a force out at second — all because Lane Thomas fired to Luis García without missing a beat, then García scooped the throw like a first baseman. But Eugenio Suárez, the next batter, soon laced a two-run homer. Then the Reds (79-75) stretched their lead against Patrick Murphy and Sean Nolin in the seventh.
Here was another lapse for a bullpen that is overworked and undermanned. The Nationals are in the often-painful process of taking stock for 2022, seeing which relievers might stick.
“My big thing with these guys is really pitch execution, which we talk a lot about,” Martinez said. “You get guys with two strikes, you know . . . the ball that Suarez hit [off Machado], that was almost right down the middle. That can’t happen in that situation.”
Jhon Romero, a hard-throwing right-hander recalled from the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings on Thursday, made his major league debut Friday and worked a scoreless eighth. Kyle Finnegan has struggled as a closer while Tanner Rainey rebounds. Baldonado, Machado and Murphy slipped in their latest opportunities, with Murphy putting two on before he was pulled in the seventh.
Nolin entered and, after striking out Tyler Stephenson, allowed an RBI single to Castellanos. The Reds scored five of their seven runs between the fifth and seventh. In the top of the seventh, Soto used his fourth at-bat to line out to Suárez, a third baseman shaded up the middle in a shift. And in the ninth, after back-to-back doubles for Lane Thomas and Alcides Escobar, Mychal Givens walked Soto to bring the go-ahead run to the plate.
That upped Soto’s MLB-high free pass total to 134, 25 more than the next closest player. Givens then walked Bell before García, moonlighting as the club’s fifth batter, tied the game with a two-out single through the left side. The Nationals erased a three-run deficit with patience and big hits. Finnegan blanked the Reds in the bottom half. In the 10th, both teams stranded their automatic runner, the Nationals helped by Austin Voth escaping a bases-loaded jam.
Soon came walk No. 135, ensuring that Soto’s on-base percentage climbed to .472 in an 0-for-2 night. But Washington left the bases juiced in the 11th, twice failing to scratch across a gift-wrapped run. Aristides Aquino then punched a walk-off single off Mason Thompson that nicked García’s glove and trickled to grass.