There are few experiences in baseball like seeing the fans at a Japanese game. The scene is more soccer than baseball as they cheer, sing songs and play instruments, with the tunes, rhythms and movements changing with each batter and situation.
Juan Soto, the Washington Nationals’ standout rookie, has experienced it from his spot in left field at Tokyo Dome, where he’s been playing for the MLB All-Stars during the Japan All-Star Series.
“In the Dominican (Republic), I’ve seen things like that,” Soto said. “Not now, but before, every game was like that.
“They have horns and those things and other stuff. This is like the Dominican, but a little bit more than the Dominican. First time playing in something like that for me.”
Even though St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina is the player most popular among Japanese fans, Soto has garnered more than his fair share of attention during this year’s Nichibei Yakyu series.
His reputation as one of the top young players in MLB preceded him, and in three games (an exhibition and the first two games of the series) Soto has already doubled off the ceiling at Tokyo Dome and hit a pair of homers.
“I’ve just felt good and (I’m) taking my time at bat,” he said.
He seems to be enjoying himself quite a bit as well. Soto has been energetic in the batter’s box and has enthusiastically waved his arms above his head after hits, which many of the MLBers have been doing.
“I feel very good being on a team like this,” Soto said. “We have a lot of veteran players like Yadier and (Carlos) Santana. I feel pretty good with this team and we’re playing pretty good.”
Soto had a standout rookie year for the Nationals, becoming the first teenager (he turned 20 after the season) in MLB history to end his rookie year with a .292 average, .406 on-base percentage and .517 slugging percentage. He also had 22 homers and 70 RBIs.
There’s a chance he’ll be named NL Rookie of the Year when the award is announced on Monday in the U.S. His main rival for the honor is Braves outfielder Ronald Acuna Jr., who is also in Japan, playing in center field, with the MLB team. Acuna hit .293 with 26 home runs and 64 RBIs during the season.
“It’s really fun,” Soto said about playing with Acuna in Japan. “A guy like that, he plays hard and he has fun all the time, no matter what. It’s really fun.”
For Japanese fans, its a rare treat to see two of MLB’s most prized young players up close. On Tuesday, one will more than likely take the field in Hiroshima as the newly crowned NL Rookie of the Year. It hasn’t all gone well for them, however, with some miscommunication in the outfield leading to an inside-the-park homer for the Yomiuri Giants during Thursday’s exhibition.
“I think you got to see a little bit of both of those guys,” MLB manager Don Mattingly said after the exhibition. “For very young players, you see the talent.
“Then you see the youth, with the miscommunication in the outfield. It’s what you get with youth, but I’m happy with those guys.”
Soto was 4-for-12 in his first three games in Japan. He said it’s been difficult to face pitchers he doesn’t know anything about. That was especially true in the seventh inning of Game 1, when he struck out against Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks submariner Rei Takahashi.
“I’ve faced a few guys who throw like that,” Soto said. “But it’s different here, the way his mechanics are. His pitches are really good, his sinker was really good.”
Soto isn’t too bad himself, and the young star could have a very bright future ahead of him.
“It’s talent,” MLB coach Hensley Meulens said. “When you have talent like that and you don’t have fear and you’re confident, you see things like that every so often. We had Andrew Jones from our country (Curacao) come up and play just like that, like Acuna and Soto this year.
“I’m very happy for them. They are letting their talent shine. They’re not being reserved, shy or anything. They’re just being themselves. That’s why they’re so good. Hopefully they can stay healthy and have great careers.”