Washingtonians roared their approval as the 23-year-old’s name was announced on the loudspeakers at Nationals Park.
“In right field, number 22: JUAN SOTOOOO”
It wouldn’t be the last time on Opening Day vs. New York that Nationals fans would rise to their feet in support of the D.C. phenom, though it would take a couple of hours for their next standing ovation. One of the most anticipated seasons for a Nationals player in recent memory began with more of a whimper than a bang as Soto stepped to the batter’s box in the bottom of the first inning.
Facing Mets' starter Tylor Megill, Soto took him to four pitches before grounding out to second base. Two innings later, Soto stepped in to face Megill again in the scoreless contest, but this time there were runners on the corners with just one out. A 98 mile-per-hour fastball right down the middle beat Soto swinging for strike three.
National bats stalled for the next three innings while their New York counterparts jumped out to a four-run lead. Washington needed offense, which Soto supplied in thunderous fashion. He smacked a fastball off reliever Trevor May into the second deck in right field. Though the Nats wouldn’t score again and the Mets would win 5-1, Soto’s blast was the ideal start to his campaign.
“It feels great to be back in D.C., to have all the love from the crowd and everything,” Soto said postgame. “It just feels amazing for me. I know things didn’t [go] our way, but at the end of the day I know we all give our 100% and we tried as much as we can.”
Soto’s 99th career home run was followed by an on-brand walk in the eighth inning. Nats fans won’t forget the fact that Soto became the youngest player since Ted Williams in 1941 to walk at least 145 times in a season. His home-run-plus-walk performance, which he supplied in droves last year, is sure to be a good omen for the Nationals in 2022.
Yet, despite the attention to individual accolades, Soto remains more focused on helping his club secure more victories.
“We know about [milestones] for the season, but whenever the season starts, I’m just trying to go focus on every game and giving it back, and forget about those numbers,” Soto said.
What might be most incredible about Soto heading into this year, though, would be the fact that he can still get better. Yes, the 23-year-old who has already won two Silver Sluggers, one NL batting championship, and just came in second for NL MVP voting, can still tune up his game.
As NBC Sports Washington's Matt Weyrich noted earlier this week, Soto continues to find opportunity areas. Specifically, increasing his stolen base total and improving his baserunning could truly evolve the phenom into a five-tool player. With 161 games remaining, and Washington predicted to finish with only around 70 wins, Soto has both the time and opportunity to sharpen his technique.
In a season in which the Nationals might find themselves starved of big-hitting—most rostered players make for a small ball approach—the likes of Soto along with Nelson Cruz must deliver deep balls to make Washington competitive. The weight on Soto’s shoulders is immense, yet he looks as though he’s prepared to take on the brunt of the offense.
“These guys are pretty good,” Soto said of his teammates. “Our bottom half, they’re just fast rollers and everything. I think they’re gonna be on base for me and I think we’re gonna be fine.”