Soler burst onto the postseason scene with a double, home run and two walks in Game 2 of the Cubs' division series against the St. Louis Cardinals, all of which helped his team to a 6-3 win and 1-1 series tie.
“I saw the ball really well,” Soler said through interpreter and bench coach Davey Martinez. “I was able to hit a double. And then my second at-bat, I was up there, I was looking for a fastball, looking for a fastball, and I thought after all the pitches, I would just get a ball up, and he got a ball up where I could hit it hard.”
Soler capped a five-run second inning with a blast to center field off lefty Jaime Garcia. That turned out to be the game-winning home run, but as Soler said, a key was getting a pitch to hit up in the zone. Before some injuries sidelined him, Soler was chasing pitches way too much on his way to a paltry .324 on-base percentage and 121 strikeouts in just 366 at-bats. After getting healthy -- and finding himself in a fight for playing time -- he changed.
“It’s all about his approach,” hitting coach John Mallee said. “We’ve been helping him with that. We’re trying to get him to lay off some stuff. He’s been doing a good job of that.”
When Soler lays off the down-and-away pitches, he turns the at-bat in his favor, as no pitcher wants to deal with his massive strength. At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, he can turn a pitch in his wheelhouse into a rocket ship leaving the yard fast as it did Saturday. The biggest surprise is he has been able to stay patient at the plate, despite the reduced playing time, as the Cubs are stacked with talent up and down the lineup.
“He’s more relaxed, getting himself ready when he comes into the game,” hitting consultant Manny Ramirez said. “I talk to him all the time about being ready and staying patient.”
Ramirez, who hit 555 career homers, is a luxury Cubs coaches love having around. He legitimizes everything they’re trying to impart, plus he can explain it in Soler’s native tongue. It’s a huge boost in communication.
“I just see him totally engaged right now,” manager Joe Maddon said. “That's the best way I can describe it. The coaching staff has done a wonderful job with him, especially Manny. I know Manny is in his ear all the time.”
Maddon saw a little something in Game 1 on Friday that helped in the decision to start Soler on Saturday. When Soler walked as a pinch hitter in the ninth inning, then went first to third on a base hit, it told Maddon everything he needed to know: Soler was ready for the postseason.
On Saturday morning, some wondered if sitting Schwarber for Soler and Austin Jackson was the right move, considering how hot Schwarber has been. But with the Cubs so deep, they can afford to employ the most dangerous set of platoon players in the league. Think about it: When Schwarber is matched against a righty, he’s deadly. Same with Soler against lefties. The Cubs are maxing out on their talent simply because they can.
“That’s the beauty of our lineup,” Anthony Rizzo said. “You can insert Jorge, who hasn’t played a whole lot, and he goes deep. It’s the strength of our lineup. We have a lot of depth. Joe picks the right guys at the right time.”
Thank goodness for Soler’s heroics, as Rizzo and Bryant have struggled so far, yet the Cubs are 2-1 in the playoffs. The question is whether Soler will start Game 3 on Monday with righty Michael Wacha on the mound. Don’t count on it, as Schwarber just sat after going 4-for-6 in two playoff games. Then again, Soler’s perfect on-base percentage after five postseason plate appearances -- which includes three walks -- will be hard to pass up.
“I was talking to [catcher] Miguel [Montero] before the game in the dugout, and Miguel came up to me and said, ‘You could have a really good game,'" Soler said. “And he was right -- I had a good game.”