By Rhett Bollinger
ANAHEIM — For infielder Livan Soto, it was a dream to be called up by the Angels on Saturday. On Sunday, he made the most of his first career Major League start at shortstop.
Soto picked up his first career hit with a single in the third inning off lefty Marco Gonzales, then connected on his first homer, a two-run shot that chased Gonzales from the game in the seventh inning. His impressive performance helped lift the Angels to a 5-1 win over the Mariners at Angel Stadium.
“I was so happy, because everyone’s dream is to get their first hit,” Soto said through an interpreter. “It helped me settle my nerves a little bit. And then I got the homer, and when I was running the bases, my legs were kind of shaking. But I was so happy.”
Soto, 22, was called up after batting .281/.379/.362 with six homers, 17 doubles and 18 stolen bases in 119 games with Double-A Rocket City. He was brought up to replace infielder David Fletcher, who was placed on the injured list with a right hand contusion, while shortstop Andrew Velazquez was shifted to the 60-day IL with a torn meniscus in his right knee.
Soto, who was signed as an international free agent out of Venezuela in 2017, is expected to get playing time in the middle infield down the stretch, as the Angels want to get a look at what he can do. He made his debut on Saturday, entering as a pinch-runner in the fifth and grounding out to first base in the eighth.
Interim manager Phil Nevin gave him the lineup card from that game, then surprised him by telling him that he was getting the start at shortstop on Sunday. And Nevin was pleased to see Soto take advantage of his opportunity.
“It was a special day for him,” Nevin said. “Those are things that have always been cool for me. Yesterday, I gave him the big [lineup] card for his first game afterwards, and I told him, ‘I’ll give you my dugout cards tomorrow after your first big league hit, because you’re starting.’ And he just kind of looked at me like, ‘Whoa, I am?'”
As Nevin promised, Soto started at short and batted ninth, giving him his first full-game experience in the Majors. He handled a grounder at short from Ty France in the first inning without any issues, which undoubtedly calmed his nerves.
“I was so happy for him,” said Rengifo. “He’s from Venezuela, too. I know him from Venezuela and we train together. I know what kind of talent he has. He has pretty good hands and he has his mind right. I’m just so happy for him being here and helping the team win.”
After striking out looking on a fastball in the fifth, Soto gave the Angels two big insurance runs with a two-run shot off Gonzales in the seventh. Soto jumped all over a fastball on the inner half of the plate and drove the pitch a Statcast-projected 364 feet down the right-field line. He became the first Angels player to homer in his first Major League start since Francisco Arcia on July 26, 2018, against the White Sox.
“You didn’t see anything like nervousness or anything,” Nevin said. “I’m sure he had it inside, but everything we’ve heard about the kid is he’s just even keel and not fazed by much. The hit was great and came right in front of Luis hitting a home run. And the home run was big for us right there. It gave us some cushion and was a good moment, too.”
Soto said he was thankful for the opportunity and called it a memorable week, as he was also able to celebrate Double-A Rocket City’s second half North Division title on Thursday before getting called up. He said he simply wants to try to help the Angels win, just like the Double-A squad.
“It’s been a pretty good week, because we won a championship with Rocket City and then, I got called up to the big leagues,” Soto said. “And I was able to experience this, so it’s been pretty good. I just want to do the simple things and help the team win. I don’t want to put a lot of pressure on myself. I just want to do the best I can.”