HOUSTON — Of all the impressive things that Juan Soto, the Washington Nationals’ 20-year-old baseball wunderkind did in Game 1 of the World Series, the most impressive might have been something many fans didn’t notice.
Oh, the home run was spectacular. He hit it opposite-field off possible AL Cy Young winner Gerrit Cole and it landed on the train tracks at Minute Maid Park.
And there was the record-book stuff. Three hits and three RBIs in his first World Series game. Only nine players had ever done that — and only one, Andruw Jones, was younger than Soto when he did.
That was great, but it wasn’t *the* most impressive to Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long.
For that, let’s rewind to the fifth inning. There were two runners on. Soto’s homer in the previous inning had tied the game after the Astros jumped to a 2-0 lead in the first.
Soto was in the box again against Cole — a guy who hadn’t lost a game since May 22; and who had only allowed one postseason run before Game 1 — and he waited. Soto wanted a fastball. He feasts on them. That’s what he hit to the train tracks. And that’s what Cole was trying to avoid throwing him again.
Instead, he fed Soto breaking balls. A slider taken for a ball. Two knuckle curves taken for balls. Soto still waited. He took a called strike on a slider. He took a rip — and swung and missed on a changeup.
And then, his sixth pitch into the at-bat, he saw yet another slider and hit it the other way, clanking off the scoreboard in left field, bringing home two runs and giving the Nats a 5-2 lead that would eventually become a 5-4 win.
“He didn’t see one fastball that at-bat,” Long says of Soto. “It’s pretty rare that a 20-year-old kid in a situation like that won’t see one fastball from a guy who throws 97. He was able to stay back, find a good pitch and drive it off the left-field wall.
“That,” Long said with a pause, “is impressive.”
This is what baseball is about, after all. Adjustments and tweaks. Making something out of a moment where a methodical pitcher like Cole doesn’t want to give you anything to hit. How do you react if you’re a 20-year-old on the biggest stage of your life? With that kind of patience? With that amount of poise?
A lot of young players come into the league and get by on raw talent. It’s when they have to make an adjustment — when a pitcher or an opposing team learns their tendencies — the real challenge comes. That Soto hasn’t been figured out yet is a testament to just how good of a hitter he is. That he did this in his first World Series game and in his franchise’s first World Series game is nothing short of remarkable.
“Clearly this is not too big a stage for him,” said Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch.
“It felt like he was there before,” said Asdrubal Cabrera, the 33-year-old infielder.
History would tell you that not many people have been where Soto was on Tuesday night.
• He’s now the fourth-youngest player to homer in the World Series. Only Miguel Cabrera, Mickey Mantle and Andruw Jones were younger. That’s quite a list.
• He became the youngest player in MLB history to have three RBIs and a stolen base in postseason history. Before Soto, the youngest player to hit a homer and steal a base in a World Series game was Jose Canseco — who was 24 when he did it.
• He was the first player since Moises Alou in 1997 to have three hits, hit a homer and steal a base in a World Series game.
Speaking of 1997 — are you ready to feel old? — Soto wasn’t even born yet. He was born in October 1998. (His 21st birthday is Friday, the date of the first home World Series game in Nats history). For context, the San Diego Padres and the New York Yankees had just finished up the 1998 World Series a few days before Soto was born.
“You can always tell the young guys that come up that can slow the game down,” said Nats first baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “What does that mean? It means at any moment, at any time you can take a deep breath and you don't try to do too much and you just stay within yourself. It sounds easy to do, but it's hard to do even in the regular season for a 20-, 21-year-old. To be able to do it on this stage, to be able to execute the plan that he had, he's got a chance to be OK.”
After hitting just .188 in the NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals, without a homer and only collecting three hits, Soto used his time off to re-focus his game. He’d been in the cage, trying to stay back on balls, hit them the other way.
Pounce on the fastball when it comes, sure, but don’t get fooled by the other stuff.
“Sometimes I just put gum in my mouth,” Soto said about how he stays calm in big moments. “But most of the time just take a deep breath and focus. It's just the pitcher and me. I forget about everybody around. It's just you and me.”
It was him and Cole in Game 1. The pitcher nobody had been able to solve this season was bested by the player that might just be baseball’s best young star.
“What I learned when he was a 19-year-old at Yankee Stadium,” said Nats GM Mike Rizzo, “the bright lights don’t seem to affect him. They even make him sharper and more focused.”
If that’s the case, that there’s a good chance we still haven’t seen Juan Soto’s most impressive moment in this series. And that should frighten the Astros.
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