As one of the best players in baseball — and dubbed the Washington Nationals’ franchise player by his general manager, manager and teammates before this season — Juan Soto often receives a bright spotlight for the right reasons. But Friday brought one of the few departures from that. This time, the root cause was Soto jogging down the line on a grounder to second in Game 1 of the Philadelphia Phillies’ doubleheader sweep.
No matter that, by night’s end, Soto’s on-base-plus-slugging percentage had dropped to .796 and his average to .216. And no matter that the right fielder missed two games this week with a right knee contusion. Manager Dave Martinez was peeved by what he saw on that sixth-inning play.
“He needs to start running balls out,” Martinez said Friday afternoon. “As you know, I don’t care for that much. Everybody’s hustling, everybody’s running. It’s a groundball double play. I know his knee could be bothering him a little bit, but those situations … it’s 90 feet. I just want good effort.”
How did Soto respond?
“I mean, I’m just going out there, just trying to push as hard as I can,” the 23-year-old said. “My knee is just going up and down, and I’m trying my best. At the end of the day, it’s just my fault. I’m not going to blame anybody, but I’m going to try harder the next time.”
Last May, Martinez made Soto apologize to the team for not running on a pop-up that landed in front of home plate and would have scored a run if he did. Martinez called the matter “embarrassing for the whole club” in his postgame presser. Each situation has echoes of when Bryce Harper was criticized for not hustling during his years in D.C.
It is true that more eyes are on Soto than anyone else. Generally, he wants that. But he’s stuck in the worst stretch of his young career and noticeably frustrated. In his first at-bat Friday, he struck out swinging, thought he may have clipped Garrett Stubbs’s mitt for catcher’s interference, then lobbed his helmet and bat to the dirt. In his past four games, Soto is 0 for 14 with three walks.
“I’m always trying to do my best, trying to play hard,” Soto said when asked about setting an example for his teammates, something he has talked about doing in the past. “It doesn’t matter if it’s going good or it’s going bad. Just go out there, try to do my best. I know that things aren’t going my way, but at the end of the day, we’ve got to try as much as we can to help the team.”
And what does he think is going wrong at the plate right now?
“My swings feel very on time,” he answered. “I’ve just been missing a couple balls and just taking a couple pitches that I shouldn’t take. But at the end of the day, yes, I feel good.”
That last part could be a tiny consolation for the last-place Nationals (23-45). They just need it to yield a good result or two.