PHILADELPHIA -- At times, Juan Soto seems to be a pairing of savant and prodigy. The latter because he is still just 20 years old. The former because what goes through his 20-year-old mind at the highest level of baseball suggests something beyond the ordinary.
Saturday night, Soto came to the plate against Philadelphia closer Hector Neris, his team down 3-2. Two were out and the not-fleet Anthony Rendon was on first base. The Nationals, as a group, were just 1-for-10 this season against Neris. Soto was 1-for-3 with a strikeout and walk despite the scouting report on Neris being direct: he throws split-finger fastballs almost 70 percent of the time. Soto knew this. Absorbing the knowledge is one thing. Doing something about it is different.
Soto hits from the back of the batter’s box. It’s common. The white line suggesting where the batter’s box should end is quickly wiped when the game begins. He establishes his left foot on that back line to handle the extreme velocity of modern pitching.
However, knowing Neris was going to send a splitter his way, Soto changed everything -- the night, the mood, another part of the season -- before a pitch was thrown to him. He moved forward two steps. Why? He wanted a better read on the break since he wasn’t worried about any other pitch. The initial math suggested this was a good idea. Philadelphia catcher J.T. Realmuto confirmed the thought by moving forward with Soto. He had to stay up to handle the break. He could have stayed back if Neris was going to throw a fastball.
“I was just looking for that one,” Soto said. “Maybe that's why I see it just a little bit more hanging and I hit it.”
He, in fact, crushed it: 420 feet at 108.5 mph to left-center field to give the Nationals a 4-3 lead in the ninth. Sean Dootlittle -- with lower velocity than usual -- finished the game. Washington moved to 49-42. Philadelphia fell to 47-45. These are two teams rapidly moving in disparate directions.
And, the reason Saturday was because of Soto’s adjustment, swing and power. He rounded the bases with glee, banging on his chest a third before finally making it to a dugout party. After Neris retired Matt Adams, he trudged toward the Phillies dugout while being buried with boos.
Soto has three career go-ahead home runs in the ninth or later. All have been against the Phillies, including one in the 10th inning on April 9 this season.
“That was another one,” Soto said when reminded. “That was good. In that situation, we wasn't fighting that much against those guys. But right now…”
Right now, the Nationals hold a two-game lead in the wild-card standings thanks to a stunning 30-11 onslaught since May 24, the best in franchise and organization history over 41 games. Never better in Montreal. Never better since baseball returned to Washington.
Saturday night’s addition to the surge was a direct result of Soto’s smarts and power.
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