In his first at-bat of the Washington Nationals’ 6-5 victory Sunday, Juan Soto was looking for a fastball. If he got any other pitch, he said later, he would adjust.
It was a vintage swing from Soto, one that sparked the offense. The Nationals (18-31) needed every run they got; the bullpen nearly blew the lead for Josiah Gray by giving up four runs in the seventh and eighth innings before Tanner Rainey slammed the door on Colorado (21-26). The victory secured just the Nationals’ third series win and their first since they took two of three from the host San Francisco Giants from April 29 to May 1.
“I feel like I’ve been swinging the bat pretty well the last couple days,” Soto said. “I’ve been doing my homework, working on my swing, working on my stance and everything. I just feel great.”
He admitted during a series with the Milwaukee Brewers last weekend that he didn’t quite feel like himself at the plate. He still leads the majors in walks (40), and his on-base percentage of .381 is in the top 20. But Soto has struggled in May, especially recently; in his previous 13 games entering Sunday, Soto batted .114 (5 for 44) with two doubles and 11 walks.
Sunday’s performance may be a sign that he’s getting back on track. His inside-out swing for that first-inning homer, coupled with a sixth-inning double that nearly left the park in right, gave Soto his first multi-hit game since May 12.
So what has been the difference?
“I can’t tell you about it,” Soto joked. “I’ve definitely been trying my stuff, and it’s been working. I’ve been taking more pitches. I’ve been seeing the ball better, and you can see my swing is better — way better.”
His double came after Lane Thomas cleared the bases with a two-run homer to give the Nationals a 6-1 lead. The Nationals got their other two runs in the second with three straight two-out singles and some heads-up base running by Alcides Escobar, Victor Robles and César Hernández.
With Escobar on third base and Hernández at the plate, Robles stole second; when Rockies second baseman Brendan Rodgers dropped the ball, Escobar dashed home for a 3-1 lead. Robles stole third a few pitches later and scored on Hernández’s single.
Gray gave up a leadoff home run to Charlie Blackmon to start the game but allowed just two more hits. He walked four, driving his pitch count up to 93 and ending his outing after five innings.
Soto helped make sure Gray got the win. Soto felt his at-bats in this series were much better — and an indication that he was on his way to swinging the bat batter. Manager Dave Martinez said Soto seemed more relaxed Sunday and waited for his pitch.
“Hopefully, this will kick-start him in order to continue to do what he does,” Martinez said. “I’m not concerned about him hitting. He’s going to hit, and he’s going to drive the ball. Today was a good day, and hopefully he continues to do that.”
What happened with the bullpen? Andres Machado and Kyle Finnegan allowed two runs apiece in the seventh and eighth innings, forcing Martinez to call on Rainey to get the final five outs. Machado allowed three straight hits and a Blackmon RBI groundout to cut the Nationals’ lead to 6-3. Finnegan couldn’t limit the damage in the eighth, allowing four hits and exiting with runners on the corners, one out and his team up by one. Rainey struck out Elias Díaz and Blackmon to escape that threat, then retired the side in order in the ninth.
How did Stephen Strasburg fare in his second rehab start? He did not allow a hit in five scoreless innings for low Class A Fredericksburg. He threw 58 pitches and struck out six; his lone blemish was a full-count walk in the fifth.
Who will start against the Mets this week? Erick Fedde and Patrick Corbin are expected to start Monday and Tuesday in New York. As for Wednesday, that question probably won’t be answered until Tuesday after Aaron Sanchez was designated for assignment Saturday. Martinez said before Sunday’s game that the team will leave its options open, potentially turning to a long reliever (Paolo Espino or Josh Rogers) or going with a pitcher in the minors — perhaps even one who isn’t on the 40-man roster, he said.
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