That fact hung over the stirring victory. How could it not? Soto, a 22-year-old star, played the entirety of a 12-5 loss to the Cardinals on Monday night. He broke an 0-for-11 slump, the longest of his career, with a seventh-inning double. He was in the lineup — hitting second, fixed in right field — that was announced Tuesday afternoon. But he had felt triceps pain for a few games, and an MRI exam revealed the shoulder strain. Then he was subbed out for Andrew Stevenson and put on the shelf.
“It’s early. We got some days off [coming up], so we thought, ‘Hey, we’re not going to take any chances with him,’ ” Manager Dave Martinez explained. “We’re just going to try to get him right as quick as possible.”
To fill Soto’s roster spot, outfielder Yadiel Hernandez was recalled from the team’s alternate site. To fill the void, Bell homered in the sixth, his first of the year, before Tanner Rainey was burned in the seventh. Corbin had logged six scoreless on 76 pitches to duck another rush of doubt. Rainey, still searching for his usual velocity and better control, was tagged for a pair of runs. Yet it only set up a sideways ending.
Stevenson walked to begin the eighth. That was normal enough. Josh Harrison, though, was hit by an errant fastball from Giovanny Gallegos. Turner, now the top guy without Soto, knotted the score by singling off an 0-2 fastball. And once Bell grounded out, Kyle Schwarber was intentionally walked and Starlin Castro struck out looking after the Cardinals brought in a fifth infielder, Gomes worked a four-pitch, bases-loaded walk to put the Nationals ahead. Brad Hand stranded a runner on second in the ninth. That was all it took.
“I say it all the time, but it’s true: It’s not a one-man show. It’s a team sport,” Turner said when asked whether he feels more pressure with Soto out. “We need to pitch well, we need to play good defense, and we need to hit. Hopefully we can pick him up.”
The soonest Soto can return is April 30, the first day of a home series against the Miami Marlins. He joins starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg (right shoulder inflammation) and relievers Will Harris (right hand inflammation), Wander Suero (left oblique strain) and Luis Avilán (torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow) on the IL. But it doesn’t end there.
Jon Lester, the expected fourth starter, has yet to make his Nationals debut. He remains on the coronavirus-related IL but is throwing at the alternate site. Reliever Javy Guerra should miss at least another month with a flexor strain in his right elbow. And Martinez revealed Tuesday that Seth Romero, another depth pitcher, has a rib injury and will be sidelined for a while.
But Soto leaves a large hole in the Nationals’ order. He had two doubles, two homers, 10 walks and an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .870 in his first 14 games. But it wasn’t another bat that softened his absence Tuesday. It was Corbin burying his dreadful start.
Before sending Soto to the IL, the Nationals promoted Steven Fuentes, a 23-year-old righty, and optioned reliever Ryne Harper to the alternate site. The move was made to boost their heaving bullpen with a fresh arm. The relievers had been heavily taxed by short outings from Corbin, Strasburg and Joe Ross, who yielded 10 earned runs in the series-opening loss. Corbin entered his third outing with a 21.32 ERA in 6⅓ innings.
It was both a tiny and concerning sample. But the coaches noticed that, by throwing too many change-ups, Corbin had lost command of his slider. Martinez wanted to see more of Corbin’s go-to pitch. The lefty, then, threw 31 sliders, 22 four-seam fastballs, 17 sinkers, two curveballs, a cutter and just three change-ups. He struck out five while yielding four hits and no walks.
“You just go back to your strengths, is really the main thing,” Corbin said of what changed from his first two appearances to this one. “Everybody knows that’s my slider and fastball command. So I just really wanted to simplify things and get back to it.”
He retired 11 straight Cardinals from the second to the fifth. In the sixth, after Tommy Edman punched a leadoff single, Corbin cleared the bases by getting Paul Goldschmidt to bounce into a double play. Yet Martinez hooked Corbin for Rainey after six innings. The seventh soured once Stevenson couldn’t make a tough play along the side wall in right and Yadier Molina reached with a 10-pitch walk. Dylan Carlson followed with a triple on a middle-middle fastball. Austin Dean brought Carlson in with a fly to left.
That left the bones of a frustrating loss: Should Martinez have stuck with Corbin instead of turning to Rainey? Could Soto have lifted a spotty offense? But the eighth inning erased the need to wonder how he could have helped the Nationals — at least for one night.
More from The Post: