Bradley’s Buzz: The Braves face Round 2 versus the touted Padres

San Diego Padres left fielder Juan Soto (22) reacts to being struck out late in the game Thursday, April 6, 2023 at Truist Park in Atlanta. (Daniel Varnado / For the AJC)

Credit: Daniel Varnado

Credit: Daniel Varnado

San Diego Padres left fielder Juan Soto (22) reacts to being struck out late in the game Thursday, April 6, 2023 at Truist Park in Atlanta. (Daniel Varnado / For the AJC)

Over Easter weekend, the Padres won three of four at Truist Park. The Braves haven’t lost since. San Diego is 2-5, having dropped series to the Mets and Brewers. The Braves open a three-game series at Petco Park tonight. Max Fried is scheduled to start against the team that drafted him.

The Braves are 1-3 against the Padres, 11-1 against everyone else. The Braves destroy lesser opposition. Since the season began, they’ve lost Fried, Michael Harris, Travis d’Arnaud and Orlando Arcia to minor injuries. Hasn’t mattered. They have the National League’s best record. FanGraphs gives them a 16.9% chance of winning the World Series. No other team is above 11%.

The Padres have played five series, winning only the one here. They’re eighth among NL clubs in runs. (Braves are first.) They’re 10th in OPS. (Braves are second.) Fernando Tatis is due to return from PED suspension later this week. Meanwhile, Juan Soto – regarded by some as baseball’s best hitter, Mike Trout included – has an OPS of .731; his career OPS is .944.

Soto went 0-for-17 over four games with Milwaukee. He walked five times – he leads the league in walks – but still. His batting average dropped from .217, his seasonal high, to .172. That’s not Marcell Ozuna territory, but by Soto standards it’s shocking.

Even great hitters can have bad starts. On May 8, 2021, Freddie Freeman’s batting average was .197; he ended the season at .300. Soto has three home runs, the most recent having traveled 435 feet in New York. But he is, as Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post noted, pulling the ball more than when was a National, and not by design.

“I think it’s my mechanics,” Soto told Janes. “My mental side says, ‘Hit it that way,’ but the ball is still going this way.”

Earlier last week, Soto told “Everybody’s talking about what I’m doing wrong. Nobody’s telling me (how) to fix it.”

The downsizing Nationals sent Soto to San Diego at the trade deadline last season. This was hailed across baseball as maybe the most monumental trade in the sport’s annals, trumping Babe Ruth for cash and Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas. (See for yourself. Google “Soto biggest ever.”)

There was reason for the ballyhoo. Soto was 23. He’d finished ninth, fifth and second in MVP voting. When based in Washington, his OPS was .966. Hank Aaron’s career OPS was .928.

As a Padre, Soto hasn’t been the same. His batting average with his new club is .217, down from .297 as a Nat. His slugging percentage is .388, down from .538. He joined a Padres batting order that includes Manny Machado. They added Xander Bogaerts over the winter. Tatis’ return is imminent. Even among that array, Soto figured to be first among equals. He just went hitless over a four-game set.

The Padres have thrown huge money at free agents, paying $350 million for Machado and $280M for Bogaerts. Soto spurned the Nats’ offer of $440M over 15 seasons, which is why they traded him. He’s making $23M this year. He can become a free agent in November 2024. It’s thought he might be baseball’s first half-a-billion-dollar man.

And he’s hitting .172.

Soto is too good for this to continue. The Padres are too good to be sub-.500 – they’re 8-9 – much longer. But the weight of expectations can have an effect, even on those who stoke such expectations. Asked on TBS last week about the Dodgers, Soto said: “We’re not worried about them. They should be worrying about us.”

You can almost hear Freeman and Mookie Betts and Clayton Kershaw saying, “Oooohhhh – we are SO scared.”

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