Nationals’ Juan Soto Goes From Tiniest Stage to Biggest

Nationals’ Juan Soto Goes From Tiniest Stage to Biggest

HOUSTON — It was demolished a few months ago, the old stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where Mickey Mantle, Reggie Jackson, Derek Jeter and Cal Ripken Jr. once trained in the early spring. It was crumbling when one final star added his name to the list of legends.

Legend is too strong a word to describe Juan Soto, the left fielder for the Washington Nationals, at least for now. Soto does not turn 21 until Friday, when his team will host the first World Series game in Washington since 1933. He helped lead the Nationals there with one of the best seasons ever for a player his age: 34 homers, 110 runs batted in and a .949 on-base plus slugging percentage.

He signed with Washington when he was 16, in 2015, agreeing to a $1.5 million deal in a musty old batting cage at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, the former spring home of the Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles. He had been playing in a showcase event at the park, and the Nationals — who had already seen Soto in the Dominican Republic, his home country — pulled him away for a private evaluation.

“It was really nasty in there,” said Johnny DiPuglia, the Nationals’ vice president for international operations. “It smelled like urine. We had to kick a guy out of there, gave him 10 bucks.”

As far as the Nationals knew, only one other team, the Chicago White Sox, was seriously pursuing Soto. But the explosions coming off his bat in the Nationals’ private workout alerted the Arizona Diamondbacks, who also liked Soto. DiPuglia saw one of their scouts peeking into the cage.

“They were trying to steal our evaluation,” DiPuglia said. “They followed us over there and they saw us in the cage, and when we were walking out, I told them it’s too late. They tried to trump our offer, but he honored his commitment.”

The Diamondbacks finished four games out of a wild-card spot this year, and if they’d had Soto, he might have made the difference. Instead, the Nationals won the wild-card game over the Milwaukee Brewers, with Soto lashing a two-out, bases-loaded, go-ahead single off Josh Hader in the eighth inning.

In the decisive game of the next round, at Dodger Stadium, Soto delivered again — also off an All-Star left-hander while trailing in the eighth. That time, Soto homered off Clayton Kershaw to tie the game, then scored on Howie Kendrick’s go-ahead grand slam in the 10th. Soto was just 3 for 16 in the National League Championship Series, but Washington swept St. Louis to earn a date with the Houston Astros in the World Series.

Soto was scheduled to bat fourth in the Nationals’ lineup for Game 1 on Tuesday, making him the third-youngest cleanup man in World Series history, after Miguel Cabrera in 2003 and Ty Cobb in 1907.

“It’s a blessing from God, to be here in the big leagues and play baseball like I have,” Soto said on Monday at Minute Maid Park. “I never thought I’d be this talented of a player.”

The Nationals knew. DiPuglia was enchanted by Soto’s knowledge of the strike zone, his ability to recognize off-speed pitches and smash line drives off the barrel to all fields. His advanced skills at such a young age reminded DiPuglia of Cabrera and Rafael Devers, who also became high-impact players for playoff teams at 20 years old.

Mike Rizzo, the Nationals’ general manager, had promoted two other top prospects to the majors at age 19: Justin Upton (when Rizzo worked for the Diamondbacks in 2007) and then Bryce Harper with the Nationals in 2012. Both established themselves quickly.

“One thing that we don’t get caught up in here is your chronological age,” Rizzo said. “That does not determine your status with us. Players mature and develop at different rates, and we felt that Juan was capable of playing well in the big leagues. Offensively he was quite ready. Defensively he had to learn on the fly.”

Soto joined the Nationals in May 2018, after Kendrick tore his Achilles’ tendon while chasing a fly ball in left field during a doubleheader. Rizzo was so eager to promote Soto that he made the call before the games were over.

A month earlier, Soto had been playing for the team’s Class A affiliate in Woodbridge, Va. Yet at least one major leaguer knew he was ready. The same sound that had attracted DiPuglia caught the attention of third baseman Anthony Rendon, who was recovering from a toe injury with the minor league team that April.

“I saw him barreling everything, and it was loud,” Rendon said. “Obviously we saw him in spring training, but it’s spring training, everyone’s 100 percent. Seeing him during the year when he’s grinding every day, especially through the rigors of a minor league season, it was special.”

Even so, a reporter asked Rendon, wasn’t it surprising how much Soto contributed? He homered in his first start last season and was the runner-up to Ronald Acuna Jr. for the N.L. Rookie of the Year Award. Rendon insisted he saw it coming.

“A lot of people will surprise you, so I don’t put anything past anybody,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I was surprised about the impact he has had, because those few days that I was down there, I don’t think he missed a barrel at all.”

Soto’s strike zone awareness has helped him post a .403 on-base percentage over the last two seasons. Only four other everyday players have had a better O.B.P. in that time: Mike Trout, Christian Yelich and Mookie Betts, all former Most Valuable Player Award winners, and Alex Bregman, who might win one this season.

Soto was mostly a right fielder in the minors, and has learned to play left through diligent pregame work with the Nationals coach Bob Henley. His eye at the plate was refined sooner, but that was not innate, either. Even as an amateur, DiPuglia said, Soto would ask sophisticated questions about pitchers — how to spot the telltale dot on a slider, how to adjust for different arm angles — and in the minors he developed a routine to reinforce his confidence.

When Soto takes a close pitch, he will sometimes shuffle forward in the box, staring at the pitcher with a shoulder-shimmy and an occasional grab of his crotch. Earlier this postseason, he explained the purpose of the ritual.

“I like to get in the minds of the pitchers because sometimes they get scared,” said Soto, who made it a point to learn English and who conducts most interviews that way. “In the minor leagues, some pitchers get scared, they say, ‘Oh, wow,’ because they never see that before. I just try to get on their minds and all this stuff. I still do it here in the big leagues. A couple of the guys tell me, ‘Hey, you can keep doing it, but do it in the right situation.’”

To Soto, the opening game of the N.L.C.S. in St. Louis was the right situation. Miles Mikolas, the Cardinals’ starter, taunted Soto right back, grabbing his crotch and staring down Soto after retiring him on a groundout with the bases loaded.

After the game, Soto said that he did not mind Mikolas’s reaction and that he would laugh it off, but since then he said he did not expect his routine to command such attention. He has toned down the act since then.

“Soto really is a humble kid, and he doesn’t do it with bad intentions,” the veteran outfielder Gerardo Parra said. “And it’s something about being a young player. Talk to him and he’s going to improve it. Each person starts differently, and it’s all how you interpret it in the moment.”

Soto has helped guide his team to the biggest moment of all, on a sparkling diamond far from the rancid batting cage where the journey began.

James Wagner contributed reporting.

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