Diamondbacks keep Juan Soto at bay, take care of Nationals again

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PHOENIX — Madison Bumgarner had a clear plan against Juan Soto on Saturday night: Hit fastballs to the top or over the top of the zone, test Soto’s sixth-sense plate discipline, see what happens.

And it worked. Soto entered the game with a 21.2% chase rate, third-lowest among the majors behind only Alex Bregman and Max Muncy. Bumgarner agreed with that. With the bases empty in the first, he watched as Soto fired a missile at an ascending heater, just off the right-field foul post, before flying to deep center. In the second, Soto chased and sniffed out four fastballs that were high or out. Then in the fifth, Soto took a called strike – a throw flirting with the heart of the zone – then fouled a high fastball, then hit one over his head.

The Washington Nationals didn’t lose, 7-2, to the Arizona Diamondbacks because of those at-bats. The rest of the range didn’t hit either. While guarding the Nationals (31-65), Aníbal Sánchez gave up three runs in five innings. Behind him, Andrés Machado came in and was scored for four runs in the sixth. Josh Bell and Nelson Cruz finished a combined 0 for 7. Victor Robles’ third homer, a solo shot on Bumgarner in the eighth, cut the deficit to just five runs.

But those left-left clashes with Bumgarner were another odd twist of Soto’s season. The 23-year-old saw 10 pitches in three plate appearances. Each of them was a four-seam fastball in the 90s. Of Bumgarner’s seven strikes against him, not counting the ball in play on the first, only two were in the area.

Typically, if a pitcher wants to bait Soto with high, low, inside or outside balls, the result is a late walk or contact, once the guy on the mound gives way. This game brought the opposite, reversing Soto’s well. – documented approach. Bumgarner went eight innings, holding the Nationals to two runs, walking none and striking out eight. During his second encounter with Soto, a fan chanted “440! 440!” in the lower bowl, nodding to the record-breaking contract offer Soto recently turned down.

Those numbers will follow him wherever Washington goes — or wherever Soto goes with his next club, should he be traded by the August 2 deadline. With a 0-for-4 performance on Saturday, Soto had a career-best 27-game on-base streak. The Nationals, meanwhile, have dropped 17 of their last 19 contests. They were outscored by the Diamondbacks, another last-place team, 17-3 in the series.

Why did Keibert Ruiz and Luis García both sit out on Saturday? Manager Dave Martinez wanted to stack his order with right-handers against Bumgarner, 32. So with Ruiz a switch hitter, that meant trading right-hander Tres Barrera before Ruiz played in Sunday’s final. With García a left-handed hitter, Martinez replaced him with utility man Ehire Adrianza. The decisions did not shake the offense.

Why did the Nationals choose Josh Rogers for the minors? “Before he left, he was working on different pitches,” Martinez said of the move that fit with Rogers, a left-handed pitcher, being reinstated on the injured list on Friday. “I know we want to develop a change, he’s working on a different breaking ball. But more than anything, it’s to keep it stretched. … The more minor league starters we can have, the better off we’ll be here in the long run.

Have Sánchez and Bumgarner ever faced each other? Once on July 29, 2010, when Sánchez, then 26, threw a complete shutout for the Florida Marlins. Bumgarner, 20 and pitcher for the San Francisco Giants, went five innings in a 5-0 loss. They have now combined for 696 career appearances.

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