WASHINGTON — When it comes to being the guy in the Nationals’ clubhouse, Juan Soto is willing to take responsibility if things go wrong.
Soto, 23, has unquestionably been the guy on the field for Washington each of the last four seasons. He won Silver Slugger awards in back-to-back years, finished runner-up for NL MVP in 2021 and became the face of the franchise almost overnight last summer when the Nationals sold off a majority of their veteran players at trade deadline.
The team has turned to him to lead the franchise into a new era, and his at-bats are prioritized more than any other. So when Soto came up to the plate in a 4-3 game against Arizona Diamondbacks closer Mark Melancon with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the ninth Thursday, there was no one the Nationals would’ve rather had at the plate.
Soto saw three pitches, the last of which was a ball above the zone that he popped up to end the rally. The first pitch was a called strike low and he admitted after the game he was frustrated by the call. He then tried to do too much with the third pitch when a single would’ve been enough to send the Nationals home with a walk-off victory.
“It was a bad pitch,” Soto said. “I swung at a ball. [There’s] nothing I can do with a bad pitch. I gotta look for pitches in the strike zone to make good contact.”
Those are the very moments for which the Nationals will look to Soto to perform. He’s done it before — on a World Series stage, no less — but the lack of firepower around him puts more pressure on the young outfielder to come through. It also requires him to take on the responsibilities of a leader, something not many 23-year-olds have to do in major-league clubhouses.
Soto did just that Thursday, owning up to his mistake in a media scrum afterward and preaching how the team needs to stick together despite its 6-9 start.
“Just keep battling,” Soto said. “Don’t give up at all. Every at-bat, every pitch, just try to keep fighting — as a group, not as like a player. We’ve gotta fight as a team…every time we get a single, just thinking about the team and I think that’s one of the things that’s gonna get everything going.”
Shortly after the 2021 trade deadline, Nationals manager Davey Martinez referred to Soto as the “core of our team.” President of Baseball Operations and GM Mike Rizzo called him the club’s “No. 1 priority,” going as far to say the Nationals aren’t engaging in extension talks with any other players until they gain some clarity on Soto’s future. Washington is all in on him.
Over the offseason, Soto declined a contract extension reportedly worth $350 million. He’s certainly in line to make even more than that if he continues to perform like he has. Whether it’s the Nationals or someone else that gives him that money, he’s going to have to be the guy for the rest of his career with those kinds of numbers on his paystubs.
For now, he’s accepted the burdens that come with that distinction. This season, and the number of losses it’s expected to include, will be a constant test of his ability to lead the Nationals both on and off the field. He’s trying not to get too caught up on individual mistakes.
“I just go out there,” Soto said. “If I miss, I miss. I don’t got to be scared to miss. I just go out there and try to do my job. If it goes in my way, that’s great. If not, I’m gonna get another chance [another day].”