- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 12, 2018

PITTSBURGH — If Juan Soto had stayed in the minors, he most likely would be playing in the Futures Game on Sunday.

If he had come up to the majors a few weeks sooner he may have made the National League roster as a reserve for Tuesday’s All-Star Game at Nationals Park.

So much for what ifs.

Still, the Dominican Republic native has made a rapid rise to the major leagues at the age of 19.

“It has been a good year; everything I do is good,” Soto said in improving English. “Since the first day (with the Nationals) I just keep doing my thing. It is still baseball; the pitchers have the ball, I have the bat.”

And what a bat it is.

As it is, Soto — the talented left fielder for the Nationals — plans to head to New York for the All-Star break and spend some time with relatives he has there.

That includes an uncle who was at Yankee Stadium in New York when Soto hit two homers against the Yankees last month.

“I am going to stay there and see my family down there,” he said.

Going into Thursday’s game in New York against the Mets, Soto was hitting .304 in his first 47 games with the Nationals, with 11 doubles, nine homers and 28 RBI.

Soto leads National League rookies in several departments and in games through Wednesday he led all National League players in on-base average (.426) with a minimum of 185 plate appearances. He had a slugging mark of .540 and an OPS of .957.

For comparison All-Star teammate Bryce Harper was hitting .213 in games through Wednesday with a slugging mark of .468 and an OPS of .837.

Soto began this season with the low Single-A Hagerstown Suns of the South Atlantic, then was promoted to the high Single-A Potomac Nationals of the Carolina League and played just 15 games there.

Then it was on to the Double-A Harrisburg (Penn.) Senators of the Eastern League, and after just eight games there he was summoned to Nationals Park on May 20. He hit .362 in the minors this year before heading to Washington.

“Wow. To see him do what he is doing, it just shows how special this kid is. We picked up a gem when he signed him” out of the Dominican Republic, said Harrisburg manager Matt LeCroy, who will be the bench coach for the U.S. team in the Futures Game Sunday at Nationals Park.

Soto noted one bus trip with Hagerstown this season was about 12 hours. Now on charter flights with the Nationals he listens to music on his headphone and sleeps.

“The travel, the people know you more on the street when you walk around,” said Soto, standing by his locker during a recent series in Pittsburgh. “When you walk around everyone knows you.”

His first Major League hit was a homer in his first start and he was the National League Rookie of the Month for June. Soto had three hits here on Tuesday against the Pirates.

The left-handed hitting outfielder played mostly right field in the minors but made some appearances in center and left with Hagerstown this spring.

Dave Martinez, the first-year manager of the Nationals, can see the improvement in the outfield.

“He is getting better. He works every day on it. I see him get much better. His angles are getting better. His first step is better. It is a new thing for him and he has adjusted well,” Martinez told The Washington Times.

Soto said in the minors he was told to play all three outfield positions just in case. He made a nice running catch here Tuesday in left-center against the Pirates.

“You never know where you are going to play if they call you up,” he said. “I am still working on my first step.”

Soto said he appreciates it when his name as a mentioned as an All-Star candidate — at the big league level. Next year that may become a reality.

“That is very good. I like the way they are talking. I appreciate that. (I just) keep working,” he said.

NOTES: The third-place Nationals began a four-game series against the Mets on Thursday night with Max Scherzer on the mound. The Washington rotation for the rest of the series includes Tanner Roark (3-11, 4.76) on Friday at 7:10 p.m. and Jeremy Hellickson (3-1, 3.47) on Sunday at 1:10 p.m. before the All-Star break. The Nationals appear to be leaning towards using right-hander Austin Voth to make his big league debut Saturday at 4:10 p.m. against the Mets.

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