- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 24, 2019

Justin Verlander fired a pitch past a swinging Juan Soto during Game 2 of the World Series Wednesday night, the fastball smacking into the catcher’s mitt behind the Nationals outfielder.

Undeterred by his failure to connect, Soto twirled his hips, took a small step to the side and wiggled to readjust and ready himself for the next pitch.

That entertaining routine is the “Soto Shuffle,” as the Nationals and their fans know, and as the Astros and the rest of the baseball world have learned this week.

Some opposing pitchers see the dance as showboating, but Soto insists it’s more tic than taunt. Either way, the 20-year-old outfielder is having fun at the plate in a series that has turned into a coming-out party for a next-generation Major League Baseball star.

Entering Friday’s Game 3 — on his 21st birthday, no less — Soto is hitting .289 in the playoffs, and has been even better against the Astros. In nine plate appearances, Soto recorded four hits, three runs and walked twice. And on Thursday, Soto was nominated for his first-ever Gold Glove nomination for his work in left field.

In two short seasons, Soto, with his All-Star skills and marquee smile, is well on his way to becoming not just the face of his franchise, but a legitimate MLB star.

His production helped the Nationals survive Bryce Harper’s departure, and his potential could help the team thrive even is MVP-candidate Anthony Rendon were to leave in free agency this winter.

“For me, Bryce chose to go elsewhere,” manager Dave Martinez said. “But the guys we’ve had, we knew that we had the right guys to be able to step in and do the job, we really did. I mean, a healthy Adam Eaton, as you all know, you can see what he can do. We have a young center fielder in Victor Robles that’s had an opportunity to play every day this year, and has done well.

“And a 20-year-old that’s going to be 21 here in a day or two that’s been unbelievable.”

Because of his age, Soto has been racking up World Series records. He became the third-youngest player ever to hit clean up for a World Series team. He joined just three others — Mickey Mantle, Andruw Jones and Miguel Cabrera — as the youngest to hit a home run in the World Series.

Still, the most impressive aspect of Soto’s game is the respect he already commands at the plate.

In Wednesday’s 12-3 win, the Astros did something they hadn’t done the entire season: They intentionally walked a batter. By sending Soto to first in the seventh inning — loading the bases in the process — the Astros opted not to pitch to someone for the first time since 2018. They were the first team in MLB history to go the entire regular season without using an intentional walk.

The decision backfired as the Nationals tacked on five additional runs to take an 8-2 lead.

“I’ve watched Soto just like you have,” Astros manager A.J. Hinch said. “We see the downside of [the intentional walk]. Clearly I think there’s a lot of downside given that I haven’t done it all year.

“But ironically I thought it was our best chance to limit their scoring, and instead it poured gasoline on a fire that was already burning.”

This season, the Nationals were confident Soto would continue to have success after a stellar rookie campaign. Soto and the team understood pitchers would try to adapt by throwing more off-speed pitches and fewer fastballs — an approach that proved unsustainable.

In Year 2, according to Baseball Savant, Soto ended up facing a greater percentage of fastballs (54%) than he did his rookie season (52). It helped that Soto dramatically improved against off-speed pitches, going from a .220 hitter to .315.

Soto consistently works on his approach. After Game 3 of the NLCS, a game in which the Nationals won, Soto went into the batting cages to work with hitting coach Kevin Long.

Mired in a mini-slump and determined to break out, Soto did — coming up with timely hits in Game 1 and 2 in Houston.

“I’ve been working on that since my first day in the big leagues,” Soto said. “Sometimes I just put gum in my mouth, but most of the time just take a deep breath and focus. It’s just the pitcher and me. Everybody around, I forget about everybody around. It’s just you and me and you try to make me out and that’s how everything comes down and try to enjoy it.”

• Matthew Paras can be reached at mparas@washingtontimes.com.

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