WASHINGTON — The stage was set for a comeback — multiple times, at that.
In the end, a bases-loaded rally with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and one of baseball’s most dominant hitters at the plate fell short by way of a popup to third base. It’s a chance the Nationals would like to have back, but manager Dave Martinez saw a lot to like as he watched his players swinging to win.
“They were locked in, they were ready,” Martinez said following the Nats’ 4-3 loss to the D-backs on Thursday at Nationals Park. “We had opportunities the last couple innings to put the game away, and we just couldn’t do it. But I’ll take my chances with those guys, especially Juan [Soto] up there in that situation.”
Beleaguered by a trio of Arizona home runs hit off starter Josh Rogers, Washington trailed 4-2 entering the eighth inning. Alcides Escobar (walk) and Victor Robles (fielding error, second base) got the momentum going for the top of the order. The D-backs walked Soto to load the bases with one out.
Their gamble paid off: Nelson Cruz, who had walloped a Statcast-projected 426-foot homer earlier in the game, popped out on the first pitch he saw from Ian Kennedy. Up next, Josh Bell drove in a run when his bat hit D-backs catcher Jose Herrera’s glove, putting him on base via catcher’s interference, but Keibert Ruiz also popped up in foul territory on a first-pitch swing, ending the Nats’ threat.
“He’s a high-ball hitter,” Martinez said of Ruiz. “I think that one was just a little too high for him. But we wanted him swinging at the balls up and, like I said, just a little too high.”
Another bases-loaded opportunity presented itself in the ninth. With two outs, Escobar and Robles delivered again, as Escobar singled to center field and Robles lined a single to right. An errant cutter from Mark Melancon hit César Hernández to load the bases, this time with no wiggle room to walk Soto, who last season hit .333 with the bases loaded.
“Just try to win the game,” Soto said of his first thought when he approached the plate. “Try to get a single, and try to bring the runners in.”
Soto took the first pitch from Melancon, a cutter, for a strike. Looking to be aggressive, he fouled off a knuckle curve to fall behind 0-2. Soto then swung at another cutter, popping it up to third base for the final out. In retrospect, he said, he should have watched it go by.
“It was a bad pitch — I swung at a ball,” Soto said. “There’s nothing that I can do with a bad pitch. I’ve got to look for pitches in the strike zone to make good contact.”
From Martinez’s point of view, he saw Soto trying to protect the plate and swinging at a ball that was “just a little up.” He approached the slugger with a pat on the back and a forward-thinking message that didn’t linger on the disappointing loss.
“’I can’t wait until you’re up with the bases loaded again — and again and again,’” Martinez said. “More times than not, he’ll come through.”
For all the home runs and big hits Soto has crushed, there were lessons to be learned in the 23-year-old’s still-young career.
“For me, I just go out there. If I miss, I miss. I’m not going to be scared to miss,” he said. “I just go out there and try to do my job. If it goes my way, that’s great. If not, I’m going to get another chance.”