WASHINGTON (AP) — Juan Soto and Victor Robles took a moment to themselves off to the side of the clubhouse mayhem as the Washington Nationals celebrated clinching an NL wild card.
They chatted, then they hugged.
The two young Dominican outfielders — Soto is 20, Robles 22 — were a big part of Washington’s success and two examples of the fresh faces around the majors who could become more familiar during the playoffs, which open Tuesday night with the Nationals hosting the Milwaukee Brewers.
“They put on a show during normal games, so I can only imagine what they’re going to be feeling when they go to the postseason,” said Adam Eaton, who plays right field, with Robles in center and Soto in left. “It’s pretty neat that they get to display their talents to a wider audience. They should be household names already, and if they’re not, they will be by the end of the postseason.”
There are guys like that all around, even if players like the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger and New York Yankees’ Gleyber Torres have already had a taste of this time of year.
Soto announced his presence as a teen in 2018, finishing second in NL Rookie of the Year voting after collecting 22 homers and 70 RBIs while learning how to play left field on the fly, but Washington didn’t reach the playoffs. He followed that up with 34 homers and 110 RBIs this year while moving into the cleanup spot.
He’s eager to get a chance to learn what October is about, saying, “I want to see how the crowd is going to be. I want to see what my emotions are like.”
Robles, who got one at-bat in the 2017 NL Division Series, played his first full season in the majors this year, producing 17 homers, 65 RBIs and 28 steals, along with 12 outfield assists, the fourth-highest total in the sport.
“There’s nobody looser than Victor Robles in our dugout. I can tell you that right now. Don’t be surprised if you see him dancing before the game,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “That’s who he is, that’s what he does.”
Soto will turn 21 on Oct. 25, and his first legal drink in the U.S. could come during a champagne celebration after the World Series. Robles said that when he and Soto embraced last week during the music-filled clinch party, “We were looking back at how we had discussed getting to this point. It’s something we talked about together, the whole time we were coming up.”
As for what they should expect now, Robles shrugged his shoulders.
“Baseball is baseball. It’s going to be the same baseball, even in the postseason,” he said through a translator. “But, yes, the adrenaline on our end is a little more heightened, and the adrenaline from the fans is a little more heightened, yes. Every game really matters, every play really matters.”
Here are other up-and-coming players whose October debuts could matter:
KESTON HIURA, MILWAUKEE BREWERS
Position: Second base
2019 Stats: .303, 19 HR, 49 RBIs, .570 slugging, .938 OPS
Why He’s Important: Called up from the minors in May, his hitting has been so valuable, he even spent time in the cleanup spot.
Quote: “I wouldn’t say there’s any expectations on how I should play. The atmosphere’s just going to feel a little differently.” — Hiura.
JACK FLAHERTY, ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
Position: Starting pitcher
Age: 23; turns 24 on Oct. 15
2019 Stats: 11-8, 2.75 ERA, 33 starts, 231 Ks, 196 1/3 innings, 0.968 WHIP
Why He’s Important: The righty went to the mound on the last day of the regular season to seal the NL Central title, an indication of how much he means to his club.
Quote: “He’s got that ability to pitch. He’s smart, works hard. I didn’t have any doubt he was going to be a good pitcher in this league and right now he’s proving that.” — Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina.
MIKE SOROKA, ATLANTA BRAVES
Position: Starting pitcher
2019 Stats: 13-4, 2.68 ERA, 29 starts, 142 Ks, 174 2/3 innings
Why He’s Important: After missing the 2018 playoffs because of an injury, his emergence adds key depth for Atlanta as it takes on St. Louis in an NL Division Series.
Quote: “He carries himself like he’s been around a long, long time. He knows exactly what he’s trying to accomplish and that’s very rare in somebody. He’s got all the tools to be great.” — Braves catcher Brian McCann.
YORDAN ÁLVAREZ, HOUSTON ASTROS
Position: Designated hitter, outfielder
2019 Stats: .313, 27 HRs, 78 RBIs, .655 slugging, 1.067 OPS
Why He’s Important: Called up in June, he collected three consecutive AL Rookie of the Month awards and added pop to an already dangerous lineup.
Quote: “What he’s doing, it’s awesome. It’s hard to believe. He’s probably one of the best young hitters in baseball right now. But what I like about him is how humble and how hard he works every day.” — Astros second baseman José Altuve.
LUIS ARRAEZ, MINNESOTA TWINS
Position: Infielder, outfielder
2019 Stats: .334, 4 HR, 28 RBIs, .399 on-base percentage, 29 Ks
Why He’s Important: Too few plate appearances to win the batting title, but otherwise would have finished second in the AL; versatility was a huge help with all of the injuries Minnesota had to outfielders. He sprained his ankle on the last day of the season, making his ALDS availability a question.
Quote: “He has tremendous feel and he has tremendous awareness. We’ve seen that from him over and over again. We’ve seen it in the batter’s box. He does things innately.” — Twins manager Rocco Baldelli.
AP Sports Writers Dave Campbell, Fred Goodall, Beth Harris, Keith Jenkins, Janie McCauley and Kristie Rieken and AP freelancers Larry Fleisher and Brian Stull contributed.
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