That assumes Washington already sees him as one, anyway.
But his route was not perfect, he did not reach up, and his glove didn’t find the ball. No, on Saturday, with two outs in the ninth inning, Boston Red Sox catcher Christian Vázquez smacked an RBI triple with great bearing on the American League wild-card race. He blasted a 97-mph fastball from Tanner Rainey, scoring pinch runner José Iglesias from first. Rainey had walked J.D. Martinez, replaced by Iglesias, to begin his second inning. And the resulting win — 5-3 for the Red Sox — pulled them into a tie with the Yankees atop the wild-card standings.
The Mariners and Blue Jays each remain one game behind the AL East rivals. The Nationals, then, watched a consequential game balloon once Travis Shaw followed Vázquez with an RBI single off Rainey, then Kiké Hernández ripped a two-run homer off Mason Thompson. The full implosion made it so Andrew Stevenson’s bottom-half homer, a two-run blast off lefty reliever Austin Davis, could only dent the deficit. Washington (65-96) brought the tying run to the plate before Lane Thomas flew out to end it.
“I tried. I really tried. I was thinking to jump, but then I stopped because I know I was pretty close to the wall,” Soto said of Vázquez’s triple. “Even Stevenson told me I didn’t have any chance if I jumped. But I tried my best, tried to catch it, and it just didn’t go my way.”
Well before all that, Josiah Gray also pitched for the Nationals, Yankees, Blue Jays and Mariners on Saturday — not to mention the fan base for each of those teams — and himself.
And for six innings, Gray, 23, was very, very close to everyone’s highest expectation. He made one big mistake, a middle-middle fastball that Rafael Devers crushed for a solo shot in the fourth. He otherwise yielded two hits, two walks and struck out seven, capping his final outing at 90 pitches. He closed his rookie year with a 5.48 ERA in 70⅔ innings, a number bloated by a few rough September starts, then slimmed with how he navigated the still-contending Red Sox (91-70).
His teammates just couldn’t hit Boston’s pitchers. At least not for most of the afternoon and evening. Tanner Houck, the Red Sox’s starter, set down all 15 batters he faced, striking out eight. Despite the perfect game bid, he was lifted for the sixth, a risky move for Manager Alex Cora. But Houck has recently been in the bullpen, shortening his pitch counts, and has struggled while seeing a lineup a third time this season.
The Red Sox had to treat each inning like a do-or-die situation. Gray, though, could view this as a small taste of meaningful games down the stretch.
“I’m excited to play in [front of] other 40,000-people crowds, with us getting a chance to clinch or do something like that,” Gray said, looking a bit into the future. “It was a lot of fun today.”
Like Gray — and unlike the Red Sox — the Nationals are in the process of closing shop for the winter. Luis García, 21, sat for a second straight game because of soreness in his left rib cage. Joan Adon, a 23-year-old right-hander, arrived from the minors and will debut by starting Sunday’s series and season finale.
Manager Dave Martinez also announced Saturday that pitching coach Jim Hickey will return next season. As for the rest of his staff, Martinez only promised to discuss the immediate future with General Manager Mike Rizzo on Monday, once the year is through. Hickey, though, was handpicked by Martinez and earned strong reviews in the clubhouse, even if the results didn’t always back them up.
“We’ve got to look at the big picture, and it’s everything,” Martinez said of assessing Hickey. “For me, when you talk about the pitching, you’ve also got to talk about the defense. That’s important, too.”
That didn’t come into play Saturday. Instead, Gray and Houck traded zeros until Devers drove a 2-2 fastball out to right-center. Soon, Houck was lifted for Garrett Richards after only 53 pitches. After that, once Richards logged a scoreless sixth, Ryan Brasier had to clean up a mess of his creation. But he struck out Jordy Mercer looking, using a low fastball, before plate umpire Phil Cuzzi ejected Mercer for arguing the call.
On top of leaving the bases loaded, Washington didn’t have another second baseman. García’s injury had thinned its bench, which is probably why Martinez didn’t pinch-hit for Mercer in the first place. Scrambling, the Nationals moved Thomas from center field to second, Stevenson from left to center and Josh Bell from first to left and subbed Ryan Zimmerman in at first.
The new and shifted defenders saw little action in the field, save a smooth play from Thomas that finished the ninth. But in the bottom half, Zimmerman lifted a routine pop-up that Hunter Renfroe, Boston’s center fielder, lost in the twilight. It dropped for a hit, and Zimmerman slid into second with a double off Adam Ottavino. Thomas, the next batter, worked a full-count walk. And two batters after that, Soto, the Nationals’ MVP candidate, launched a 393-foot sacrifice fly that knotted the score against Davis.
“I’m really not thinking anything,” Soto explained of his approach in that spot, adding that once Davis said something to him during the at-bat, he was lucky Soto didn’t crush a grand slam. "[Davis] started talking trash to me, and my mind-set just changed to kick his a--. That’s what I’m going for.”
Yet the game turned — and quickly — when Soto couldn’t make a running grab in the ninth. The rest unraveled from there.