Nats lumber up against Brewers, with Juan Soto leading parade of homers

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While there was no way of knowing Juan Soto would hit the first of back-to-back-to-back home runs Saturday at Nationals Park — teaming with Nelson Cruz and Josh Bell — there were clear indications he was seeing pitches in a way only Juan Soto can.

Go back to the first inning of the Washington Nationals’ 8-6 win over the Milwaukee Brewers. Facing lefty Eric Lauer, Soto fell behind 0-2; fouled off two pitches; then took a slider just off the plate, a fastball just off the plate, a curve just off the plate; then fouled away another slider before drawing a walk. Throughout the nine-pitch battle, Soto smiled and nodded, his chin almost touching his chest. He shuffled a bit, kicking dirt around the freshly lined batter’s box.

Really, he looked like himself, a welcome sign for the Nationals (23-38). If they hand the Brewers (33-28) their ninth consecutive loss Sunday, they will have their first sweep of the season. Washington has scored 19 runs in the first two games of the series.

“He’s definitely seeing the ball a lot better,” Manager Dave Martinez said before focusing on Soto’s first-inning walk: “That was a good at-bat. That lefty today, he’s got good stuff. And when [Soto] worked those nine pitches like that, I thought, ‘Yeah, he’s seeing the ball really well.’ ”

Soto entered Saturday with an uncharacteristic .226 batting average, .368 on-base percentage and .447 slugging percentage. His chase rate of 21.6 percent, the fifth lowest in the majors, was more than six points higher than where he finished last season. The chases and weak grounders — and the .125 average with runners in scoring position — have often made Soto seem like a shell of a 23-year-old superstar.

So maybe, just maybe, recent games mark a course correction. Soto has four homers, a double and six walks in Washington’s past eight contests. With the bases loaded in the third Saturday, he walked against Lauer before Cruz scorched a two-run, 113-mph double to left. And with Lane Thomas on first in the fifth, Soto got a high fastball from Lauer and crushed it 406 feet to right-center. Cruz, the next batter, hammered a low cutter 416 feet in the same direction. Then Bell lined a 3-1 curve 376 feet to left, a fitting tribute to the bobblehead giveaway depicting him as the Incredible Hulk.

That totaled 1,198 feet of home runs in the span of eight pitches. Lauer, who entered with a 2.38 ERA, was tagged with eight runs on seven hits. Both were season highs.

“When you see the line drives low and hard the other way with runners in scoring position, that’s who I’ve seen the last four years he’s been in the show,” Bell said of Soto. “So it’s definitely fun to watch, and I know there’s a lot more coming.”

This was the fifth time the Nationals have hit three straight homers since coming to D.C. in 2005. The latest accounted for Soto’s 13th of the season, Cruz’s seventh and Bell’s seventh. Cruz and Bell homered Friday, too, while Soto brought in runs with a single and a fielder’s choice. Martinez felt Soto was on the edge of breaking out, though he has filled the year with such predictions.

This time he might be right.

“It was just a different vibe today,” said Soto, who did bounce into a double play in his final at-bat. “I felt way better at the plate and even in the outfield and everything.”

What does that vibe feel like in the box?

“It feels like a lot is coming,” he answered, grinning and echoing Bell. “A lot is coming soon. There are a lot of good at-bats coming in.”

How did Patrick Corbin’s start play out? Rough at the beginning and end. Sharp in the middle. Corbin was greeted by a leadoff homer for Christian Yelich in the top of the first. From there, he retired 14 of the next 19 batters he faced. Those Brewers reached on two singles, two walks and an error for shortstop Luis García, allowing Corbin to hold them to one run while the Nationals’ bats clicked. But after entering the seventh at 88 pitches, Corbin was crushed by a double for Victor Caratini, a double for Lorenzo Cain and a two-run homer for ninth hitter Mark Mathias, the first of his career.

Can the Nats fix Patrick Corbin? It’s a question with no easy answer.

Corbin recorded one more out and was pulled for Erasmo Ramírez, who induced a double play before yielding back-to-back singles. Kyle Finnegan then came in to quiet the noise. He and Tanner Rainey combined for the final seven outs. The gap was halved when Luis Urías took Rainey deep for a two-out, two-run homer in the ninth.

Who will start for the Nationals on Sunday? Right-hander Paolo Espino. The options were Espino or rookie Evan Lee, and Martinez has suggested that both will stay stretched out ahead of a doubleheader against the Philadelphia Phillies on Friday. But Espino, 35, gets the nod in the Nationals’ sixth and final matchup with the Brewers. Espino has 2.03 ERA in 26⅔ innings, all in relief. He has not, however, pitched when the margin is less than three runs (with Washington either winning or losing). The Nationals are 5-15 when he has appeared, showing how much of his work has come in a true mop-up role.

Martinez told reporters Saturday that Espino could go up to five innings. Espino made 19 starts in 2021 but has not recorded more than nine outs this year.

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