HOUSTON — It wasn’t the home run that flipped the script of Game 7, let alone the moment everyone will remember, but Juan Soto’s seventh-inning walk was perhaps the fulcrum around which the entire inning unfolded. It also showed why the 21-year-old breakout star of the World Series could be the next player who rises to the level of Albert Pujols or Mike Trout.
With one out and Zack Greinke cruising with a 2-0 lead, the Nationals had the meat of their order facing the Astros right-hander for the third time: Anthony Rendon, Soto and Howie Kendrick. You don’t want to walk Rendon because that would bring up Soto — who already had homered three times in the series — as the tying run. The Astros didn’t have a lefty in the bullpen, so that meant going after Soto with a right-hander — whether it was Greinke or reliever Will Harris.
So with Soto looming, Rendon homered off a 1-0 changeup from Greinke to make it 2-1.
Suddenly Soto represented the tying run. He had singled in the second, the only hit off Greinke until Rendon’s home run, then struck out in the fifth on a sequence that included a slow curveball and a changeup that Soto struck out on with a checked swing.
In the seventh, Soto took a fastball for a ball, swung through a curveball and took a changeup for a ball. Greinke threw another changeup, a good one at the knees. It was called a ball. Yes, Soto caught a break — the pitch had a 92% strike probability — but he had learned quickly. He had missed that changeup in the fourth. He was going to lay off it this time. The next pitch was a 3-1 curveball off the plate for ball four.
Plate discipline. It’s a beautiful thing in such a young player. Soto had the 11th-lowest chase rate in baseball in the regular season. It would be understandable for a young player who possesses light-tower power, trailing by one run late in Game 7 of the World Series, to swing for the fences. Soto took the walk.
“You look at a 21-year-old kid that’s just out there having fun like he’s playing stickball in the backyard,” manager Dave Martinez said. “That’s who he is. He loves the moments. He loves going up there and picking up his teammates.”
Soto can certainly have fun — note his home run in Game 6, when he carried his bat to first base, mimicking Alex Bregman’s home run trot from earlier in the game — but his teammates and opponents praised Soto’s mature approach throughout the postseason. He showed that in that Game 7 plate appearance.
With Soto on base, Astros manager AJ Hinch had a tough decision with Greinke, and opted to bring in Harris. Hinch said after the game that he targeted this point in the game for Harris, to face Kendrick and Asdrubal Cabrera. Note that Hinch didn’t mention Soto. That’s because he didn’t have a good option for Soto. Heck, earlier in the series he gave Soto an intentional walk — after not issuing one the entire season. It might have been nice if the front office had given Hinch a left-hander in the bullpen just for this type of situation.
Kendrick, of course, homered off Harris to put Washington in front, and the Nationals later tacked on three insurance runs. Soto added a two-out RBI single in the eighth that made it 4-2.
Soto’s final World Series line: .333/.438/.741 with three home runs and seven RBIs. He became the youngest player to hit three home runs in one World Series. He had a crucial two-run double off Gerrit Cole in Game 1, the go-ahead home run off Justin Verlander in Game 6, and the walk and RBI single in Game 7.
Soto’s postgame response to winning the World Series: “It makes you dance!” Then he started dancing.
His overall postseason line: .277/.373/.554. The website thebaseballgauge.com keeps track of a statistic called championship win probability added, which factors how the result of each at-bat affects the odds of winning a particular game and of winning the World Series. Kendrick’s home run off Harris was the single biggest play of the postseason, but the player who led the entire postseason in total CWPA was Soto.
“As far as how he rises to the occasion, I think he’s just a really talented player,” teammate Ryan Zimmerman had said before Game 7. “People that usually have success in the playoffs and are really talented do it the entire year as well. It’s just not as many people see it. Now once the whole world sees it, everyone talks about it.”
Indeed. Nationals fans have been watching Soto the past two seasons. Die-hard fans know the numbers. The back-to-back .400 on-base seasons at the unheard-of ages of 19 and 20. The .282/.401/.548 season this year with 34 home runs and 110 RBIs.
Is it fair to compare Soto to Pujols or Trout? Maybe not. We’re talking about two of the best hitters of all time, and two outstanding all-around players. Pujols hit .331 over his first 10 seasons. Trout has led his league four times in OPS and six times in OPS+. Soto ranked sixth this season in OPS and eighth in OPS+.
But maybe it is fair. Soto just turned 21 a few days ago. The list of comparable players through his first two seasons includes names like Mickey Mantle, Frank Robinson, Trout, Ken Griffey Jr. and Mel Ott. As Zimmerman said, “The scary thing is he’s only going to get better with the more experience that he gets and as he learns himself as a player and as a hitter. So, yeah, the sky’s the limit for him.”
The next Pujols or Trout? Joey Votto with more power? The plate discipline of Ted Williams with a modern flair? Let’s just call him the first Juan Soto.