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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