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Kevin Long dissects Juan Soto’s World Series Game 1 home run off Gerrit Cole

Kevin Long dissects Juan Soto’s World Series Game 1 home run off Gerrit Cole

Before the Nationals faced off with the Houston Astros in the 2019 World Series, Washington’s hitting coach Kevin Long sat down with FOX Sports analyst Tom Verducci. Long told the veteran reporter that he guaranteed young phenom Juan Soto would hit a home run off a high fastball from Gerrit Cole.

It was considered a lofty prediction, as Cole was in the midst of a Cy Young-caliber year and had allowed just one earned run in 22.2 postseason innings thus far that October. But sure enough, four innings into the first game of the series, Soto did exactly that.

In his first at-bat, Soto looked overmatched and struck out on three pitches. He got his second look three innings later and must have learned something, because he took Cole’s 1-0 pitch—a fastball high and outside—and sent it 417 feet to the opposite field.

At the Nationals’ annual WinterFest event, Long spoke with NBC Sports Washington’s Todd Dybas about what went into that prediction and why he felt compelled to make it.

“First and foremost, I do believe that Juan Soto is one of the best high fastball hitters in baseball,” Long said. “I’ve seen him numerous times take high fastballs and take care of business. Gerrit [Cole] doesn’t pitch in much, so I figured it was going to be out over the plate.

And the other factor there is, we weren’t getting much credit. They basically were cashing that game in as a loss. ‘We can’t beat Gerrit Cole. Gerrit Cole is too good. Gerrit Cole hasn’t lost since May.’ So I just said, ‘You know what? Let me just make a prediction, because I’m sick of hearing about how we’re not going to be able to do anything against this guy…and it ended up working out, it’s pretty cool.”

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The Nationals entered the World Series facing the longest odds Las Vegas oddsmakers had given to an underdog since 2007, when the Boston Red Sox were heavy favorites over the Colorado Rockies. Given that Washington went on to stun the baseball world and win in seven games, it isn’t surprising that most national fans didn’t quite yet understand what kind of player Soto is when the series began.

“I’ve had numerous people come up to me and say, ‘That was one of the most impressive home runs I have ever, ever seen,’” Long said. “As a left-handed hitter, number one. A 97-mph fastball and how far he hit it was remarkable. It truly was.

“We were putting together pretty good at-bats off him in those big situations you just need one guy to come through and that was Juan Soto’s moment. He got the pitch, he didn’t miss it and I don’t know if Gerrit was admiring it—I’m sure he wasn’t—but he was probably like, ‘Wow, this kid is pretty special.’”

Now, Soto is entering the 2020 season as the undisputed top hitter in Washington after Anthony Rendon departed for the Los Angeles Angels in free agency. Long doesn’t want Soto to change his approach too much, but rather just focus on what got him to this position in the first place.

“He doesn’t have to do a whole lot extra, he’s just got to basically be the Juan Soto he’s been,” Long said. “His swing is really, really good. He makes adjustments really well. He’s smart. He gets it, and at 21 years old that’s what makes him certainly unique.”

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Nationals pitcher Seth Romero put a long road behind him in his MLB debut

Nationals pitcher Seth Romero put a long road behind him in his MLB debut

Davey Martinez flagged down Seth Romero in the visitor’s clubhouse at Citi Field and called him into his office. The Nationals skipper cherishes moments like this one, but when the 6-foot-3, 240-pound pitching prospect walked through the door, Martinez’s attention briefly drifted elsewhere.

“First and foremost, the earrings gotta go,” he said, “and secondly, congratulations. You’re gonna pitch for us.”

Romero was already traveling with the Nationals as a member of their road taxi squad, though he had yet to appear in the major leagues. That finally changed Thursday, when Washington placed veteran reliever Sean Doolittle on the Injured List and selected Romero’s contract ahead of their series finale with the New York Mets. He made his debut in the fifth inning, allowing four runs over six outs of work with three hits, three walks and four strikeouts.

The big damage came on a grand slam off the bat of Mets catcher Tomás Nido. Romero was one out away from escaping the inning unscathed when he grooved an 0-2 changeup over the middle of the plate and Nido cranked it into the outfield seats for a grand slam. He then came back out for the sixth and recorded two outs around a pair of walks before being relieved by Wander Suero.

“I wasn’t too worried about it,” Romero said. “I felt good on the mound. I mean, things happen so I didn’t really think about it too much and just tried to focus about the next pitch.”

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Martinez spoke after the game about the Nationals’ decision to bring up Romero despite the fact that he hadn’t pitched in a professional game in nearly two years due to Tommy John surgery.

“Seth was here, we needed a lefty in the bullpen [and] as you can see when he throws strikes, he’s got swing and miss stuff,” Martinez said. “His stuff plays so I like it. He threw one bad changeup to Nido. Other than that, I thought he threw the ball very well. Nervous, he was really nervous. Heartbeat was going a thousand miles an hour but he’s gonna be OK.

“I thought with all the lefties coming up that that was a good spot for Romero. I thought he threw the ball good considering it’s his first outing in the big leagues. Got the early strikeout. Walks, I told him, ‘The walks is what—you’re up here you know. Walk one or two guys and these guys can all hit so just throw strikes. All I ask is you throw strikes.’ He was nervous but like I said, when he did throw strikes, he had a lot of swings and misses. It was nice, he’s got good stuff.”

It certainly wasn’t the debut Romero had dreamed about. The runs he gave up contributed to the Nationals’ eventual 8-2 loss and there were no fans in the stands to create the atmosphere that so many athletes strive to experience. But his debut marked the culmination of a difficult road that had kept him off the field and limited his ability to progress.

Washington selected Romero with the 25th overall pick in the 2017 first-year player draft. He had been one of the most electric pitchers in college baseball until the University of Houston dismissed him from the program for a series of incidents that reportedly included failing a drug test and fighting with a teammate. The questions about his character took a hit on his draft spot, which allowed him to land with the Nationals at the back end of the first round instead of being a top pick.

Romero made seven starts for the Nationals’ minor league system in 2017 and he evidently impressed the team enough to invite him to their major league spring training. However, the left-hander was sent home for violating team policy. He wouldn’t appear in a professional game until June of that season, when he made seven starts with a 3.91 ERA.

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But bad news struck again in September, this time in the form of an injury. Romero tore a ligament in his throwing elbow and required Tommy John surgery, putting an end to his 2018 campaign and forcing him to miss all of 2019 as well. By the time he started throwing again, Romero had to start from scratch; the first five balls he threw went straight into the ground. He eventually got over those "yips" and had been working his way back ever since.

“I’ve just been trusting the process, sticking to what they’ve told me, doing everything they’ve told me,” Romero said. “Just trying to stay healthy just in case they needed me.”

The Nationals hadn’t seen Romero pitch in a live game in 23 months, but they felt comfortable giving him a shot after what they’d seen from him at their alternate training site.

“We watched him progress, we watched him down in Fredericksburg and he was a guy that was throwing strikes and that’s important here,” Martinez said. “He was throwing a lot of strikes, he’s always in the strike zone, we feel like he’s got a lot of swing and miss stuff. And we need a left-handed pitcher. Right now he’s the only lefty we got with [Doolittle] going down. So we thought it’d be a perfect opportunity to get him up here and see what he can do.”

Even with the mixed results, both Martinez and Romero were happy to see him back on the mound and showing signs of potential. The former first-round pick still has a lot of work to do before he can live up to his draft status, but for now he reached a significant milestone and experienced for the first time what pitching in the major leagues can do a player’s nerves.

“Oh, I was 100 percent nervous for the first one but after the first few throws, I kind of settled in,” Romero said. “But right off the grip definitely nervous.”

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Juan Soto celebrates National Left-Handers Day in style

Juan Soto celebrates National Left-Handers Day in style

Around 10 percent of the world’s population had reason to celebrate on Thursday, and Nationals outfielder Juan Soto did so in a way he has been getting very used to lately.

Batting from his customary spot in the left-handed batter’s box, Soto connected for his third home run over the last two days against the Mets, this one traveling an approximate 435 feet. That makes five homers in eight games for Soto since he returned following a positive COVID-19 test just hours before the season opener.

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Back and fully healthy, the left-handed hitting Soto continues to impress the baseball world while following in the Nationals' tradition of powerful left-handed hitters. His 61 career home runs from the left side of the dish already ranks 4th in franchise history among left handed hitters:

  1. Bryce Harper: 184 HR
  2. Adam LaRoche: 82 HR
  3. Adam Dunn: 76 HR
  4. Juan Soto: 61 HR
  5. Daniel Murphy: 54 HR

(courtesy: Baseball Reference)

Soto is also hitting .414 so far in 2020, and is a career .290 hitter as well. That’s the 3rd highest mark in franchise history among left-handed hitters with at least 500 at-bats in a Nationals uniform:

  1. Daniel Murphy: .329
  2. Denard Span: .292
  3. Juan Soto: .290
  4. Nick Johnson: .286
  5. Adam Easton: .284

(courtesy: Baseball Reference)

Soto also has the 2nd highest slugging percentage among Nats lefties all-time (behind only Daniel Murphy). Not-so-memorable names like Nyjer Morgan, Brad Wilkerson and Brian Schneider also show up on these lists of lefties, but Soto is making quite a name for himself on an entirely different level.

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