Juan Soto hit a pop fly in the seventh inning Sunday afternoon and immediately looked to the sky in frustration. He slowly jogged down the line as Philadelphia Phillies left fielder Matt Vierling settled under it for the third out. First base coach Eric Young Jr. took Soto’s gear, and suddenly the Washington Nationals star was alone at the edge of the infield.
He shook his head. He then repeated his swinging motion without a bat, the movement carrying him into right field at Nationals Park. He put his hands on his hips before center fielder Victor Robles brought out his hat and his glove and Soto started to throw.
The Nationals would go on to beat the Phillies, 9-3, and snap an eight-game losing streak. Soto’s three-run homer off Zach Eflin in the second inning had let Washington pad its lead early, and the Nationals’ advantage was at least three from the bottom of the fourth inning on.
But there was Soto in right field, late in the game, working on his mechanics.
“It’s just how you get better,” he said. “Even in my sleep, I’ve been doing that movement so I can repeat it and bring it to the game.”
Back in the second, Soto swung at a first-pitch cutter from Eflin, and it landed in the right field seats 428 feet away. He jumped to celebrate with Maikel Franco afterward, a sigh of relief during a tough week. He went 2 for 19 in this five-game series, dropping his batting average to .218. And his manager had called him out Friday for not running out a groundball.
“It’s like a flush,” Soto said of the home run. “It’s like you flush your mind, your body, everything. You just feel amazing. Your work is coming through, and you feel just amazing when you see the ball just flying like that.”
Following Saturday’s loss, Soto stood at his locker with designated hitter Nelson Cruz, who watched him do the same thing he did in right field Sunday — repeating his swing path in slow motion while stopping to talk to Cruz. He would sit down for a few moments before standing back up and going over his swing again.
Soto has been working on keeping his hands tight to his body so he can hit the ball to the middle of the field. That approach has yielded results, but his frustration remains obvious, such as when he flung his bat and helmet after striking out to end the fifth inning or his reaction to his pop fly in the seventh.
“You don’t really see him ever in a slump, and you look up there and his [on-base-plus-slugging percentage] is over .800. He is walking every game,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “But it’s the two-strike approach, all that stuff. We got to keep continuing to tell him to stay on the ball, try to hit the ball the other way — especially with guys on base.”
His teammates picked up the slack Sunday as the Nationals improved to 24-46. Before Soto’s home run, Washington grabbed a 1-0 lead when Luis García doubled to open the inning and Franco singled down the left field line to score him. Yadiel Hernandez followed with a double that put two runners on for Soto’s blast. In the fourth, César Hernández had an RBI double and Cruz walked with the bases loaded. In the fifth, García led off with a single and Franco blasted a two-run homer to make it 8-3. In the seventh, Yadiel Hernandez singled to score García, who went 3 for 4 against the Phillies (36-32).
“We need Juan to be Juan,” Franco said. “I know it’s going to come. Everybody gets excited. After that [homer], everybody [got] excited, and they wanted to just continue to play hard and have great at-bats and do well for the team.”
How did Jackson Tetreault fare in his second start? He allowed three runs — all unearned — in seven innings, the longest outing for a Nationals pitcher since May 4, to notch his first major league win.
Unlike in his debut Tuesday, Tetreault was under control and attacked the strike zone. The only times he ran into trouble were a result of bad defense behind him. Center fielder Lane Thomas dropped a flyball on the warning track in the fourth with a runner on, putting Phillies on second and third with one out; both runners would score. An inning later, catcher Keibert Ruiz threw the ball into right field while attempting to throw out a runner on a back-pick play with first baseman Josh Bell that had worked frequently in recent games; that brought home another run.
Tetreault had a scare in the seventh inning when he was hit on the left shin with a 105.7-mph batted ball by Vierling. He hobbled and went to the ground while trying to walk off the pain. But after Martinez and head athletic trainer Paul Lessard took a look at him, Tetreault remained in the game and retired the next three batters. After the game, he had tape on his shin.
“It’s awesome,” Tetreault said of his first win. “Hopefully many, many more to come. To get the first one under the belt is a really cool feeling, and to be able to celebrate it with all the guys here is really cool.”
What are the latest roster moves? Right-hander Cory Abbott, who pitched the ninth inning, was optioned to Class AAA Rochester after the game. MLB teams are limited to 13 pitchers on the active roster as of Monday, and the Nationals had 14 before the move. Washington could activate shortstop Alcides Escobar to fill his roster spot; he spent the week rehabbing with Rochester after straining his right hamstring.
Also Sunday, the Nationals requested unconditional release waivers on utility man Dee Strange-Gordon, which would clear him to join another major league team. The Nationals designated him for assignment last week.