HOUSTON — “He’s going to hit a home run off a high fastball.”
The prediction stopped me cold. Major league hitting coaches just don’t speak in such definitive terms, especially about a 20-year-old about to play his first World Series game and facing the undisputed and undefeated best pitcher in baseball for the past five months.
But yes, I heard Kevin Long right on the eve of World Series Game 1. The Washington Nationals hitting coach had just told me that hitting savant Juan Soto was not just going to hit a home run, but he also named the pitch and the location.
“But that’s Gerrit Cole’s fastball,” I told Long in disbelief Monday.
I knew that among starting pitchers Cole’s four-seamer is the toughest to hit in the major leagues (.166), is the second-fastest (97.1 mph average) and spins faster than all but three others. Cole had thrown 215 straight high fastballs over the past six weeks and nobody hit one for a homer.
“Doesn’t matter,” Long said. “I guarantee you he’s going to hit a home run off a high fastball.”
A legend was born Tuesday night. Not because Long made a prediction that came true. But because Soto, who is so young he has no memory of the 2009 World Series, pretty much grabbed World Series Game 1 by the throat and claimed it as his personal property on the biggest stage the game allows. He left his teammates in awe, Cole damaged and the Astros down a game at home while getting Stephen Strasburg next.
Soto indeed did smack his home run off a high fastball from Cole—not just any homer, but a massive opposite field blast onto the train tracks high above the leftfield wall at Minute Maid Park. But he also rapped a double and single by deploying a two-strike approach that teammates have been copying from him ever since he arrived as a teenager last year—an approach that won the game for the Nationals and is their passport to winning the series. To paraphrase from a good book, a child shall lead them.
“Mr. Lerner keeps asking me when am I going to find another Soto,” said Johnny DiPuglia, the Nationals vice president of international operations, referring to the team’s owner. “I tell him, ‘Guys like this come along once every 50 years.’”
I had to see Long after the game. He looked as surprised as a man who had just watched the sun rise in the East, which is to say not at all. He has been watching Soto demolish baseballs for two years.
“Certain swing paths against certain pitches,” Long said when asked how he could have been so certain. He knew Soto’s swing path mashes high-spin, high-velocity fastballs up in the zone.
There was something else: he counted on Cole’s competitiveness.
Pitchers know Soto destroys fastballs like lions do a side of raw meat, so they have avoided them the best they could this postseason. Soto had seen 177 pitches this postseason. Only 14 of them were fastballs in the zone, which works out to one every three trips to the plate. He was seeing 46 percent breaking pitches, up from 30% in the regular season.
Cole, Long knew, would be different.
“I know with most aces they are confident in their fastball,” Long said. “That’s the way it is with Max [Scherzer], too. They don’t run away from their fastball. He was going to test him. Juan answered.”
Before we get to the home run that made his teammates’ jaws drop, we have to visit the preamble to the home run, a first-inning strikeout. Cole came after Soto with his blowtorch of a fastball three straight times at the top of the zone, each one reading like one of those bank temperature signs in Phoenix in July: 97, 98, 99. Soto missed the first and last.
The next inning, as he does with every at-bat, Soto went back to the clubhouse to look at the at-bat on video to see what had gone wrong. It turned out there was nothing wrong with his stroke. The problem was in his conviction. He simply had not invested enough in the possibility that Cole would challenge him with fastballs, not after seeing breaking pitch after breaking pitch for the past three weeks.
But so adamant was Cole about trying to bully him with his fastball that any shred of doubt left Soto’s mind. He’s actually coming at me with his fastball, Soto thought.
It was the fourth inning when Soto stepped in again against Cole. The Houston ace flipped up a nothing slider for ball one, which Soto could disregard simply as a show pitch.
“He's shown the fastball everywhere,” Soto said. “The first couple of innings, he started throwing it and throwing it and throwing it. I just waiting for that. After the first at-bat I was like, ‘He's throwing really hard.’ But I just try to sit back and hit the ball all the way.”
The next pitch was the fastball Long saw coming 24 hours away, and Soto saw coming three innings earlier. This one was 96 mph and it was in nearly the exact same location as the one Soto swung through in the first inning for the strikeout.
Soto’s swing is no oil painting. When he swings he does so from a wide, crouched stance. His head barely moves. The bat comes around with the menace and intent of a five-ton wrecking ball. There is little arc to his swing and less fluidity. He simply overpowers the baseball the way a hammer does a nail. When Juan Soto hits, it is not Swan Lake. It is blunt force trauma.
He sent the poor baseball onto those train tracks high above leftfield, as impressively as if any righthanded hitter had done so.
“The kid’s amazing,” said Nationals rightfielder Adam Eaton. “He goes and smashes one oppo-tank up there. We were all looking at each other like, ‘Check your chins.’ Because our jaws all went down. He is an incredible talent, and an even better person.
“You’d think by now it doesn’t surprise you, but it does.”
Soto wasn’t done with Cole yet, though Cole was done throwing him fastballs. Washington won the game in the fifth inning, and it was because of what Soto started last year.
Houston pitchers led the majors in strikeouts this year. They held batters to a .144 average with two strikes, making them the third toughest team to hit with two strikes in the 32-year recorded history of pitch tracking stats (behind only the ’18 Astros and ’16 Cubs).
The Nationals don’t hit home runs like the Yankees. They know the only way to win this series against Houston pitching is to cut down on their swings and fight off two-strike pitches.
“Down and ready,” is what Long calls this approach. The batter eliminates any leg kick or excess body motion and simply puts the front foot down early—if it comes up at all—and gets into a ready position quickly to attack with an abbreviated approach.
“It began last year,” Long said, “with Juan Soto. He had that from his first day in the big leagues. Other guys saw this 19-year-old kid fighting in the batter’s box with two strikes and started thinking, ‘Why can’t I do that, too?’”
This year the Washington Nationals were the best team in the National League at hitting with two strikes.
“The best way to do that is down and ready,” Long said. “When you get your front foot down you have a chance.”
Soto, Eaton, Trea Turner, Anthony Rendon, Howie Kendrick, Yan Gomes and others all hit from a “down and ready” two-strike posture. I don’t remember any team with such a full-scale buy-in to fighting off two-strike pitches.
Here’s the thing about “down and ready:” it works before a hitter gets to two strikes, too.
“I’ll do it right from the first pitch if it’s an especially tough pitcher,” Gomes said.
That’s what Eaton did in the fifth inning. The game was tied at 2. Cole quickly was losing the finish and command to his pitches. The tip-off was when he walked a 1-for-21 Kurt Suzuki by spraying a 3-and-1 fastball nowhere near the zone. That should have sounded an alarm with Houston manager A.J. Hinch.
Victor Robles, the number nine hitter, smacked an 0-2 elevated fastball for a single.
Whoa. Now we are talking bells, whistles, alarms, sirens and the highest Renee Fleming octaves. Of all the starting pitchers and all the pitches this year, Cole’s four-seam fastball was the single toughest pitch to hit with two strikes. Batters hit—get this—.067 against it. He gave up two hits all year on 0-and-2 fastballs. Yet here was Washington’s number nine hitter drilling one to rightfield for a single.
“We had a good approach,” Long said. “We hit 13 balls hard off Cole and chased only 10 times out of the zone.”
Long counted hard-hit balls as anything with an exit velocity of 93 or higher. Cole had not allowed more than nine such hard-hit balls in a game all year.
Cole did get Turner on a flyball, though it was hit deep enough to move Suzuki to third.
Eaton stepped in next and went to “down and ready” mode right away. He took a fastball for a strike. Then, without lifting his front foot off the ground, smoked a slider for an RBI single. The Nationals were in the lead for good.
Two batters later, with two on, Soto stepped in for the last of his three-act drama against Cole. So thoroughly had Soto pummeled Cole’s fastball that he scared the ace away from his best pitch. Cole would throw Soto six pitches, none of them fastballs. Each pitch gave away Cole’s lack of conviction: slider, curve, curve, slider, changeup, slider. The best pitcher in baseball suddenly had become like the rest of the humbled hurlers this postseason. He ran away from his fastball against Soto. It was like watching a man sweat on a job interview.
By the last pitch, Soto knew Cole like Sudoku. Solved. Because it was a two-strike count, Soto went into “down and ready” mode. He sat on breaking ball, got one on the outer part of the plate in Cole’s attempt to back-door the pitch, and Soto was on time, properly pounding it off the steel wall in left for a two-run double. The sound it made, like the timpani in a Stravinsky piece, echoed across the yard like the sound of doom for the Astros. With it, the Nationals had enough runs to win the game.
After Long had guaranteed to me on Monday that Soto would hit a home run off an elevated fastball from Cole, I had left to find Soto. I wasn’t about to ask him to make a prediction, but I wanted to gauge how he felt about Cole’s fastball. He looked at me and smiled.
“I don’t have any problems with fastballs,” he told me. “I know I can hit fastballs.”
Soto was born four days after the Yankees won the 1998 World Series. I asked him what he recalls as his first World Series memory.
He thought a bit and replied, “I remember watching the Giants. I think they were playing the Royals.”
That was the 2014 World Series. Even if you grant that it might have been 2010, when the Giants were playing the Rangers, that still makes Soto so young he doesn’t remember the Yankees winning the 2009 World Series.
How young is Soto? Tuesday night he became the third youngest player to hit cleanup in the first game of a World Series, behind only Miguel Cabrera and Ty Cobb. Only Mickey Mantle, Cabrera and Andruw Jones hit a World Series homer at a younger age. Nobody has batted cleanup more times before turning 21 than Soto (138, well ahead of Mel Ott, 108, and Ted Williams, 66).
“But as talented as he is,” Long said, “he’s an even better person.”
Long told the story of how his wife was flustered at the hotel front desk over miscommunication over a package. Suddenly a young man came up to her and asked, “Mrs. Long, is everything okay? Can I help you?” It was the same hitting savant who knocked the fastball right out of Cole.
“No moment is too big for him,” DiPuglia said. “If I was out there at 20 years old I’d be [pooping] in my pants.”
On Friday, when Game 3 is scheduled to be played at Nationals Park—the first World Series game in Washington since 1933—Soto will turn 21 years old. Only 16 men have ever recorded a hit on their birthday in the World Series, and if Soto does so, he will become the youngest of all to do so.
“My dad told me when I was 10 years old that one day I’d be playing in the World Series on my birthday,” Soto said. “And now here it is happening.”
He made Game 1 his personal property. And he is so good, Soto put the Astros on notice that he is fully capable of making the entire World Series his own. It might even be predictable.