WASHINGTON -- One day. It was one day, always a difficult concept to absorb because the one day was Opening Day and everything is supposed to be right on that one day.
It wasn’t Thursday at Nationals Park. At least other than the weather, a tidy 60-plus degrees in late March. Washington’s opening 2-0 loss stirred grumbles associated with last season. Situational hitting was poor. Bullpen usage was a question. A tight game was lost.
The day also served as the first Opening Day for Victor Robles and Juan Soto. Each received healthy applause when introduced during the drawn-out pregame introductions. In a non-scientific poll, Soto finished third in applause (behind Max Scherzer and Anthony Rendon).
“I saw a couple of the guys in the line, they were laughing: Hey, first time,” Soto said. “It's amazing when you hear your name and you go out like that.”
“I felt great. It felt great to be out there,” Robles said through interpreter Octavio Martinez. “I'd like to thank God for giving me the ability and the health to be a part of this moment and secondly to the Nationals for giving me the opportunity. It's one of those moments you'll remember the rest of your career and I'm going to enjoy it.”
Ultimately, both were foiled their first day. Soto went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts. Robles was 1-for-3 with a diving catch in the outfield and crucial gaffe on the bases. Their first nine innings of the season served as harbingers. Soto will deal with a new attack from pitchers. Robles will have to get his mental speed in line with his physical.
First, Soto. Jacob deGrom throws 97 mph and up. His fastball has the illusion of rising -- Trea Turner said afterward he wasn’t sure if it actually does, though it’s impossible to do so. What deGrom’s fastball does do is hold its plane. Same phenomenon for Sean Doolittle’s fastball. It’s just staying in line much longer than the average fastball which makes it appear to elevate. Gravity is losing when deGrom throws.
In the two at-bats Soto struck out, he saw 12 pitches. Five were fastballs, four sliders and three changeups. So, deGrom threw Soto a fastball 41.7 percent of the time in those two at-bats on a day he threw fastballs 57 percent of the time overall. In other words, what we expected this season for Soto happened immediately: pitchers, even ones with the most dominant fastball in the league, like deGrom, are not going to throw Soto many fastballs.
Here is Soto on how high-end pitchers like deGrom attack him:
“They always try to be aggressive. Every time, they come to you. They don't give you a chance. So you've got to be ready for it. Every time you go to the plate, every pitch, you've got to fight. So that's one of the tough parts.”
When Soto struck out in the fourth inning, two deGrom pitches were in the strike zone. Both were changeups Soto did not make contact with.
When Soto struck out in the sixth inning, one deGrom pitch was in the strike zone, a 96-mph fastball on the black of the plate. Soto swung at and missed a changeup to strike out and irritate himself enough that he hopped out of the batter’s box and raised his bat over his head like he wanted to slam it to the ground.
In those two at-bats when deGrom actively pitched to Soto -- he pitched around him for a walk in the other -- just 25 percent of the pitches were in the strike zone. Presumably, the only one wanted as a strike was the fastball on the corner. That would drop him to 8.3 percent strikes against Soto.
“I just see a couple pitches,” Soto said. “He tried to be down in the zone really good. Just try to find a way.”
Robles twice showed why he’s so intriguing. His good read, break and top-end speed in center field allowed him to make a diving catch. Often such finishes come because a fielder made a mistake at the start, forcing him to dive at the end. Not so for Robles on Thursday.
His double off deGrom also flashed what happens when he hits the throttle. Robles clapped at second base and let his arms go wide. The youth and energy for both Soto and Robles has been noticeable and beneficial in the clubhouse. They bring life.
However, Robles being indecisive at third base resulting in a double play and snuffed-out rally showed his rawness. Manager Davey Martinez said afterward they spoke about the error.
“That’s just a young base-running mistake by him,” Martinez said. “We talked about it, he knows just to run, stay out of the double play. We have Soto coming up if he runs into an out, but we have a man on first and second.”
What is not known is the information Robles was working off at the time. Was a strict contact play on? Was it his decision and read? What was third base coach Bob Henley saying to him in the moment, an enormous one on Opening Day?
Next for the pair is fighting a repeat. Robles presumably learned a hard lesson at third. Soto received a scent of what will happen to him this season against the elite pitchers. One day, multiple lessons.
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- The Time is Now: For Nats phenoms Juan Soto and Victor Robles