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‘It’s a fight, just the pitcher and me’ — What’s behind the Juan Soto Shuffle

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WASHINGTON — The between-pitch routine that is now known simply as “The Soto Shuffle” began when Juan Soto was young — exceedingly young — in the minor leagues. It developed into a tic, but began as a mindset, a tenet, about taking ownership of at-bats and, more so, approaching life with unwavering confidence. The ritual followed him to the majors, where Soto finished his teenage years, its theatrics growing increasingly more aggressive as the months passed and the success persisted.

Then Anibal Sanchez saw it.

“He just started laughing,” Soto recalled. “I mean, I started laughing too.”

It was July 20, 2018, during their second confrontation. Sanchez was pitching for the Atlanta Braves, midway through his 13th season. Soto was 19 years old and two months into his big league career. Sometimes he would take a pitch and aggressively tug at his crotch. Other times he would squat really low, lunge forward, stare directly into Sanchez’s eyes and grin.

“I’m like, ‘What’s going on over here?'” Sanchez said. “I thought this guy was going to fight with me.”

It continued through Soto’s first two plate appearances. Sanchez would giggle, causing Soto to crack a smile and break character. On nights when he wasn’t pitching, Sanchez began imitating Soto’s routine from the opposing dugout, egging him on. Soto grew to love it.

The following year, Sanchez joined Soto on the Washington Nationals and began to view the histrionics differently. He saw a young man with distinct poise who took on a fighter’s mentality in the batter’s box. The routine, Sanchez learned, was merely an extension of Soto’s identity.

“It’s good,” Sanchez said, “especially when you have him on your team.”

“The Soto Shuffle” will be on display on baseball’s grandest stage this week, when the Nationals — fresh off a convincing sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Championship Series — face the Houston Astros in their first World Series.

Fans throughout the country have become equal parts captivated, enraged and excited by the flamboyance of Soto’s routine. He’ll swing his hips or spread his legs or sweep his feet or shimmy his shoulders or lick his lips or squeeze his, um, junk, sometimes all at once. Soto has stated that it’s a mechanism to synchronize his timing, but he also admitted to an ulterior motive.

“I like to get in the minds of the pitchers,” Soto said earlier this postseason, “because sometimes they get scared.”

Soto’s father, Juan Sr., was watching from the Dominican Republic when Cardinals starter Miles Mikolas got Soto to bounce into an inning-ending groundout in Game 1, waited for him to turn his head and grabbed his own crotch in retaliation. The incident, dismissed as playful banter by Mikolas, seemed to symbolize the sport’s ongoing culture war. But Juan Sr. just laughed. The antics, he explained, are the manifestation of a mindset ingrained in Soto as a child.

“It’s like I always told him — when you get into the batter’s box to hit, you own that space,” Juan Sr., speaking in Spanish, said in a phone conversation. “Nobody can intimidate you. On the contrary, those guys [the pitchers] are the ones who should be afraid of you. And you have to show them why.”

When Soto was only a few months old, his father was already taking him to Estadio Quisqueya, home to the Licey Tigers and the most intense, pressure-packed baseball on the island. Juan Sr. would bring a bottle and a blanket, and the two would take in the atmosphere together. Baseball was at the core of Soto’s life from then on. He was always too young and too good for the league he played in. Through the years, his father often repeated the same phrase: “You’re going to be a big leaguer.”

Soto never needed the confidence boost.

“That,” Juan Sr. said, “was always in him.”

The Nationals signed Soto for $1.5 million in July 2015, a franchise record on the international market. Injuries limited him to 83 games through his first two seasons of professional baseball, so he used the downtime to become a fluent English speaker. After the 2017 season, he returned home to Santo Domingo and trained with purpose, then zipped through the Nationals’ minor league system the following spring, graduating from both Class A levels in five weeks.

Soto arrived at the Nationals’ Double-A affiliate in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on May 10. The clubhouse was overrun, and one of the catchers was forced to share half his locker with Soto.

“Don’t worry,” Soto told him, “I won’t be here long. This isn’t my league.”

Nine days later, Nationals president of baseball operations Mike Rizzo sat in Dave Martinez’s office after his postgame media session. Martinez, then in his second month as a major league manager, lamented the injuries that were beginning to pile up, the latest a torn Achilles tendon suffered by Howie Kendrick.

“We’re bringing up Soto,” Rizzo said.

Martinez was incredulous.

“We’re bringing up Soto,” Rizzo repeated. “He’s gonna have to learn to play sooner or later.”

Soto homered in the first at-bat of his first start and batted .346 through the first 16 games of his rookie season. By the end of it, he owned a .292/.406/.517 slash line with 22 home runs in 494 plate appearances, setting a record for weighted runs above average among teenagers. Martinez was awed by Soto’s plate discipline and poise, but was also impressed by his diligence.

Soto’s second-year numbers — .282/.401/.548 with 34 homers in 659 plate appearances this season — only improved. When the postseason began, he held the record for most walks before age 21 and trailed only Mel Ott for the most home runs. Then came the game-winning hit off Josh Hader in the eighth inning of the NL wild-card game, and the game-tying home run off Clayton Kershaw on the decisive night of the NL Division Series.

“He likes the big moments,” Martinez said. “The 50,000 fans, the big lights — it doesn’t bother him a bit.”

Soto expanded his strike zone often in the minor leagues and was told to home in on one pitch, in one location, until he got into two-strike counts. Soto has adopted that mindset in the major leagues, a strategy that works only when hitters possess a firm grasp of opponents’ tendencies. Nationals starter Max Scherzer has taken note of the way Soto interprets data, a rarity for his age.

“When you’re young and trying to solidify yourself, you’re trying to solidify yourself in the baseball standards,” Scherzer said. “But to be able to take on the data is a whole different ballgame. And the fact that you can do both, especially when you’re young, that really is a testament to how smart he is.”

Soto accumulated one hit and seven strikeouts through his first 12 at-bats in the NLCS. The Cardinals attacked him mostly with breaking balls out of the strike zone, and Martinez noticed Soto trying too aggressively to pull pitches. The night before Game 4, Soto was in the batting cage with hitting coach Kevin Long until midnight, working on seeing the ball deep and hitting it to the opposite field. Hours later, in an eventual 7-4, pennant-clinching victory on Tuesday night, Soto put together four impressive plate appearances — lining a double down the left-field line, flying out to the left-field warning track, smoking a 107 mph line drive to center field and singling sharply through the right side.

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Astros’ Josh Reddick — Death-threat messages also target kids

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Houston Astros players have gotten threats “every day” since the team’s 2017-18 sign-stealing scheme came to light in recent weeks, according to outfielder Josh Reddick, who said Friday that messages he’s received also targeted his family.

“You just see the first things in your suggested box and it just says, ‘I will kill your family. I will kill your kids. Blah blah blah,'” Reddick said. “It’s depressing to read because it’s over a game of baseball. It’s not worth that kind of drastic measure.”

Reddick, who did not take part in the trash-can banging scheme, said the threats he has received so far were limited only to social media. He spoke about his experiences one day after former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers, who revealed to The Athletic in November that the Astros were stealing signs in violation of MLB rules, said he had received death threats.

As he enters his 12th major league season and fourth with the Astros, Reddick said he expects to hear more from fans about the issue both on and off the field, to the point where he thinks “it could be very dangerous outside of the ballpark to even bring your family.”

“There are ways to add security to a lot of places on the road whether it be in our hotels, on the way to the field,” he said. “At the field, obviously, being a lot more hostile environment. Be a little crazier. I think, also, at the hotels because you see a lot of people line up at our hotels. They know where we stay, they know what times we usually go to the ballpark. And what time we get back.

“For me, myself having almost 5-month-old boys, it is going to be pretty scary because my wife is going to go want to come on a lot of road trips just because wanting to have my help in raising them and do our parenting thing. So it is definitely something you can think about every night.”

Astros players won’t necessarily be safe when the games begin, as pitchers such as the Cleveland IndiansMike Clevinger and the Los Angeles DodgersRoss Stripling have hinted at the possibility of throwing at Houston batters.

Los Angeles Angels star Mike Trout this week joined a long list of players who have been critical of the Astros’ actions, saying he “lost some respect for some guys.” Reddick said he didn’t believe condemnation from opponents was adding fuel to the online threats, but he said he would like to see a more unified front in light of the messages.

“I think the best situation for us is to have our families be safe and ourselves be safe,” Reddick said. “But yeah, I think player unity is going to be a big thing. Especially with the way things are going now and way things will be in a couple of years to renegotiate stuff. I think that is one way the players need to get united. I think the more we are one on the same page and united it is going to be better for the whole game. It may take time the way this thing is being handled right now. I think ultimately the family safety is a big issue right now.”

For now, Reddick said his plan to deal with the most egregious messages is largely to “just avoid clicking on it,” but he still gets angry when he sees people threatening his children.

“I put a post of my kid rolling over for the first time and I gotta look down there and see ‘I hope your kid gets cancer,'” Reddick said. “It makes you really want to see that person in person. Really makes you want to go up to him and see what they would do if you put your face to their face and really get a little bit of retribution for yourself. Pisses you off.”

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The Phillie Phanatic has gotten a spring training makeover

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One big rumor circulating around spring training camp this week: The Phanatic — the Philadelphia Phillies‘ green and furry mascot — may be getting a new look. While the details won’t be revealed until Sunday when the team hosts the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Phillies’ spring home opener at Spectrum Field, a few (very small) details have emerged: It seems the mascot may have new shoes and socks — and may be either thinner, wider, taller or shorter. Ooh, the mystery!

While lots of players changed teams during the winter, and new-look uniforms have been released for many teams — this is the very first mascot change we’ve heard about.



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Teams close with 7-5 edge in arbitration as Diamondbacks’ Archie Bradley wins final case

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PHOENIX — Arizona Diamondbacks reliever Archie Bradley won the final salary arbitration case of the year, leaving teams with a 7-5 advantage over players.

Bradley, a 27-year right-hander, was given a raise from $1.83 million to $4.1 million Friday by arbitrators Andrew Strongin, Steven Wolf and Jules Bloch. The Diamondbacks had argued for $3,625,000.

Bradley was 4-5 with a 3.52 ERA in 65 relief appearances and one start last year. He struck out 87 and walked 36 in 71 2/3 innings.

Teams won six of the first seven decisions, and players won four of the last five. Teams have had a winning record in four of the past five years, the exception a 12-10 margin for players in 2019.

A relatively small percentage of players went to hearings among the 162 who were eligible after teams offered contracts on Dec. 2. Just 20 players exchanged proposed salaries with their clubs on Jan. 10, and nearly half of them wound up with agreements.

Clubs defeated Philadelphia Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto, Boston Red Sox pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez, Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Joc Pederson, Minnesota Twins pitcher Jose Berrios, Milwaukee Brewers closer Josh Hader, Atlanta Braves reliever Shane Greene and Colorado Rockies catcher Tony Wolters.

Winning players included Dodgers reliever Pedro Baez, Houston Astros infielder Aledmys Diaz, Miami Marlins first baseman Jesus Aguilar and Los Angeles Angels outfielder Brian Goodwin.

Phillies reliever Hector Neris agreed Thursday night to a one-year, $4.6 million deal, avoiding a hearing. His deal includes a $7 million team option for 2021 with no buyout. Neris can earn an additional $1.2 million this year in performance bonuses for games finished: $50,000 each for 10, 15, 20, 25, 30 and 35; $100,000 apiece for 40, 45 and 50; and $200,000 each for 55, 60 and 63.

Neris was Philadelphia’s most reliable reliever last year, leading the team with a career-high 28 saves in 34 chances. He had a 2.93 ERA with 89 strikeouts in 67 2/3 innings, earning $1.8 million.

He is 67-for-83 in save opportunities in his career.

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