With a home run, single and two walks in four plate appearances Monday night, Cubs outfielder Jorge Soler became the first player in major league history to reach base safely in the first nine postseason plate appearances of his career.
The 23-year-old Soler drew walks against St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Michael Wacha in the first and third innings, then sparked a three-run rally with a sharp single to left field in the fifth. That single was followed by home runs from Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, giving the Cubs and advantage they wouldn’t relinquish in an 8-6 win over the NL Central champions in Game 3 of the National League Division Series.
The Cubs didn’t give up that lead, though, thanks in part to the two-run home run Soler ripped in the sixth. He was subbed out of the game for the top of the seventh, with the better-gloved Austin Jackson taking over in left field.
Soler had five hits and three walks in 26 plate appearances leading into the playoffs after he returned from an oblique injury that sidelined him for just under a month. But he showed signs of coming around in his final two games, drawing a walk Sept. 30 against Cincinnati and working a free pass in his only plate appearance Oct. 3 against Milwaukee.
In Game 1 of the NLDS, Soler walked, and he went 2-2 with a home run, a double and a pair of walks in Game 2.
“The big component there is he's accepting his walks,” manager Joe Maddon said. “… Right now he is basically forcing the pitcher into the strike zone and that's where you're seeing the hard contact, and if it's out of the zone he's just running to first base. That's obviously the optimal situation for all hitters but I like where he's seeing it right now.
“He's figuring it out right now. Obviously that's good for us.”
Soler said he felt similarly locked in upon making his major league debut in 2014, in which he blasted five home runs and collected 19 hits in 53 at-bats over his first 15 games. But he wasn’t drawing walks at the same clip as he has in the playoffs — just five in 60 plate appearances.
“I've got tremendous confidence right now,” Soler said. “I’m seeing the ball really well, and I'm just trying to get on base and help our team win.”
Not only is Soler’s surge cause for optimism on Clark and Addison for the NLDS and the rest of October, if the Cubs polish off the Cardinals Tuesday or Thursday, but Maddon said it’s an encouraging sign to take into 2016. An ankle injury and that oblique strain limited Soler to 101 games in 2015, in which he hit .262/.324/.399 with 10 home runs and a 121/32 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
These nine record-setting plate appearances serve as a good base for Soler to see just how good he can be — especially in pressure-packed spots — when he’s not chasing pitches out of the strike zone.
“With all of our young guys now and down the road,” Maddon said, “what this moment means to us developmentally over the next couple years — this is something that he can hold onto and understand how it plays now and in the future.”