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Juan Soto and Will Harris return from the injured list, bringing the Nationals closer to whole

Juan Soto recently threw in the outfield with members of the Nationals' medical staff. Throwing at full strength is the last step before he can start playing every day. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

The Washington Nationals notched two wins before facing the Atlanta Braves on Tuesday night. Ahead of the series opener at Nationals Park, they activated right fielder Juan Soto and reliever Will Harris from the injured list.

Soto pinch-hit in the eighth inning and struck out swinging. Harris, who hadn’t pitched this season because of right hand inflammation, handled a scoreless eighth, when he walked one and struck out two in the Nationals’ 6-1 loss.

Washington went 7-3 while Soto was sidelined with a strained left shoulder. The 22-year-old has yet to throw to bases but doesn’t feel any pain or discomfort when he swings, according to Manager Dave Martinez. That led the Nationals to plug him onto their bench for the next few games. The plan, as Martinez explained, is for Soto to ease in before starting at designated hitter for a weekend series at the New York Yankees. On Tuesday, in the team’s second 2021 matchup with Braves right-hander Huascar Ynoa, Martinez played Yadiel Hernandez in right field and batted him second.

“He’s going to do some crow-hop work, imitating like he is throwing to a base — but just straight on, not moving much,” Martinez said Tuesday of Soto’s next steps. “And then we’ll see how that goes. If that goes well, hopefully tomorrow he’ll throw to a couple bases. Not many. If you think about it, outfielders really throw the ball at an average of three times a game, when they really got to get behind the ball.”

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Is Martinez concerned the shoulder strain will result in recurring problems?

“I want to make sure that this doesn’t just linger throughout the year,” Martinez responded. “Right now, [Hernandez] is playing well, and obviously we do miss Soto’s bat in the lineup. We’re going to give him some time to get this right so he feels good about himself, so he feels ready. That he goes out there and there is no hesitation to get a ball and have to throw.”

Hernandez, who was called up to fill Soto’s spot, remained on the roster after the star’s return. The 33-year-old did so by collecting 10 hits and four walks in 28 plate appearances while Soto was absent. The Nationals instead designated 30-year-old infielder Hernán Pérez for assignment, reshaping their bench to include Hernandez, catcher Alex Avila, first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, infielder Jordy Mercer and outfielder Andrew Stevenson. To make room for Harris, they optioned reliever Kyle McGowin to the Class AAA Rochester Red Wings, whose season was set to begin Tuesday night. That left Harris, Brad Hand, Daniel Hudson, Tanner Rainey, Kyle Finnegan, Sam Clay, Austin Voth and Paolo Espino in the bullpen.

Harris, 36, has been out since he was misdiagnosed with a blood clot in early March. For all of April, he slowly worked back at the Nationals’ alternate site in Fredericksburg. He is dealing with a circulatory issue that leads to swelling and discoloration in his hand whenever he pitches at 100 percent. The more he throws, the worse the symptoms are. The team’s medical staff has tried different medications and is continuing to experiment.

But Harris and the Nationals decided he will learn how to pitch through the pressure and swelling. He has faced live hitters in Fredericksburg over the past few weeks. He expects to be eased in — at least to a point — because he hasn’t made a regular season appearance in seven months. Harris, though, told Martinez he did not want to join the bullpen with an asterisk by his name. He signed a three-year, $24 million contract before last season, after he led all American League relievers with a 1.50 ERA in 2019.

“I’m ready to contribute in ways that I have for my whole career, and this is not any different,” Harris said. “If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be saying that I was ready. I don’t want to be treated differently or anything like that.”

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