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Nationals' Juan Soto not kidding around in World Series

Juan Soto of the Nationals celebrates his single

Juan Soto of the Nationals celebrates his single in the seventh inning against the Cardinals during Game 4 of the NLCS at Nationals Park on Oct. 15 in Washington. Credit: Getty Images/Rob Carr

HOUSTON – Adam Eaton painted a vivid picture of the Nationals dugout when 20-year-old Juan Soto hit a ball that clanked on top of the train tracks in left-center during Game 1 of the World Series Tuesday night.

“Have you ever seen an oppo-tank (home run) up there?” the eight-year big-league veteran said to reporters around his locker.

The short answer, for those who have seen their share of games at Minute Maid Park, was no.

“I mean, they all count, I guess,” Eaton said, still shaking his head. “But we all looked at each other, all of us had to check our chins because we were all kind of jaw-dropping.”

Soto, who made his major-league debut in 2018 – and homered in his first career start – turned Game 1 of the World Series, a 5-4 Nationals victory, with his bat. The lefty-hitting outfielder, signed for $1.5 million at the age of 16 out of the Dominican Republic, went 3-for-4 with three RBIs in his debut in the biggest spotlight in the sport.

He launched a 1-and-0 Gerrit Cole fastball to left-center to lead off the fourth inning to tie the score at 2-2 – the blast Eaton referenced – and added a two-run double off Cole, another opposite-field shot, in the fifth to make it 5-2.

“He’s an incredible talent,” Eaton said, mentioning the stolen base Soto had after an eighth-inning single. “And an even better person. That’s why we all love having him around. He’s a good teammate. You’d think it doesn’t surprise you, but it does.”

Soto, in becoming the third youngest player to ever hit cleanup in a World Series game – joining Miguel Cabrera and Ty Cobb – became the fourth different player to homer in a World Series game before his 21st birthday. The others were Cabrera, Andruw Jones and Mickey Mantle.  

“That's Juan being Juan,” said his manager, Dave Martinez. “He has to hit the ball all over the field. He's really good at staying behind balls and hitting the ball to left-centerfield, leftfield. And he was really good (Tuesday night). He worked on it. We talked about this earlier, one night he sat in the cage and hit for a while and just wanted to work on just staying on the ball and going the other way.”
Soto, slashing .286/.362/.548 with three homers and 10 RBIs this postseason entering Wednesday night, said he enjoys the pressure that comes with significant games and moments.

“I've been working on that since my first day in the big leagues,” he 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 (get) me out and that's how everything comes down to and try to enjoy it.”

From the opposing dugout, the enjoyment is not so much, though there’s plenty of respect.

“I don't even look at him as young until you see his face,” Astros manager AJ Hinch said. “He's got kind of the ‘it’ factor. He's got the twitch. He's got fast hands. He's got no fear. I think that's big for a young hitter. Early in his career to just kind of leave it out there. It looks like he's completely in control of enjoying the moment. And he can hit all sorts of different pitches.”

Hinch, as in the visiting dugout though in a different way, was awed by the homer. The double, too.
“The first homer he hit was a pretty good – Gerrit Cole throwing a high fastball up and away, that's not easy to do. And then to come back from that and get to a full count (before the double). Gets in the big count against Cole, doesn't get overly too amped up and then takes a ball (full-count slider) off the Crawford Boxes (in left). He's mature. Don't let the age fool you.”

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