PHILADELPHIA — In the top of the ninth inning, trailing by one with one on, with the Washington Nationals down to their last out, with almost all of Citizens Bank Park standing and cheering in expectance, Juan Soto hit a rocket. It did not tower, it did not hang. It left the park and zero doubt.
The Nationals’ young outfielder delivered the decisive blow in the 4-3 win Saturday night over the Philadelphia Phillies. When asked if he knew it was gone when he hit it, Soto grinned and said: “Uh, yeah. I hit it so hard.”
The 420-foot, opposite-field blast off Phillies’ closer Hector Neris surprised Soto a little less than most. When the 20-year-old dug into the batter’s box, he moved up. Usually, Soto’s left foot stamps on the back chalk-line of the box, but this time he took two steps forward to get as close to the pitcher as he could be. He had a plan.
Neris throws his splitter nearly 70 percent of the time, and Soto wanted to see the pitch as early as possible in its break. Manager Dave Martinez had told Soto to look for something up, where Neris is most vulnerable. As Soto settled himself in the box, he spied out of the corner of his eye Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto take one step closer too. Soto saw this as confirming his suspicions: Splitter incoming.
The pitch arrived letters-high, slightly away.
“He hang it,” Soto said. “He throw right down the middle.”
The win increased the Nationals’ lead atop the NL wild-card standings to two games, knocked the Phillies out of the second spot and gave the Nationals the best 41-game stretch in franchise history at 30-11 — this after beginning the year 19-31, seemingly dead.
Martinez praised the bullpen and his starter, Patrick Corbin, for keeping the game within reach.
“I talked since Spring Training [about] doing the little things, and not beating ourselves,” he said. “They’ve been doing that, and they don’t quit. We talk about this all the time, ‘We can be down, but stay in the game.’ ”
Other pieces of this night will be lost to time. The little things other Nationals did, such as Anthony Rendon’s two-out single in the ninth to keep a struggling offense afloat or closer Sean Doolittle pitching around a single and a stolen base in the bottom of the inning. The Nationals bullpen, for the second night in a row, delivered three scoreless innings, this time with five relievers.
Up until Soto’s meeting with Neris, the Nationals had been flat. The bats had an off night, failing repeatedly to come through with runners in scoring position.
Before the ninth, the Nationals put a runner on third base four times. One found his way there in the first inning, another in the third and two more in the eighth. Three times that runner found his way there with only one out. Only one scored. In the eighth, they loaded the bases trailing by one with two down, but pinch-hitter Kurt Suzuki grounded out to second.
Victor Robles was responsible for both advancing the team’s cause and subtracting from it: He drove in the Nationals’ first run of the game with an RBI single in the sixth, but in the second he was thrown out trying to stretch a double into a triple, and the Nationals didn’t score that frame.
On the mound, Corbin embodied what felt for so much of the game like a good-but-not-good-enough performance. He allowed six hits and three runs while walking two and striking out 10 over six innings.
An hour before the game, the pressure attached to his start — and to each Nationals pitcher’s start after it, really — ratcheted up. The Nationals placed ace Max Scherzer on the 10-day injured list with a mid-back strain, which means the team’s already uncertain rotation looks even cloudier. Martinez will have several decisions to make in the coming days about how he’ll utilize the off day Monday — whether he’ll use a four-man rotation and one spot starter or a five-man rotation and two spot starters — but the way his team battled back Saturday eased those concerns, if only for a moment.
In the ninth, Corbin was in the locker room. He heard the roar from the ballpark and looked up at the clubhouse TV, which was delayed. Later, he smiled while describing Soto’s home run.
“He’s such a talented player,” Corbin said. “If you make a mistake, he can do some damage.”
While Corbin was watching on the screen, Soto was upstairs on the field, rounding third base. The usually reserved player displayed rare emotion. He stared into his dugout, a thin line underneath the sea of fans in Phillies red, and thumped his chest. There, where his teammates seemed dejected moments earlier, they now went wild.
“That feels amazing,” Soto said of rounding the bases. “That feels amazing when you try to help your team the most you can and you know you’ve got a good pitcher on the mound and you're fighting with that team.” He paused.
“It's all the emotions coming out.”