“I don’t think it’s going to be anything that I got to worry about for the future,” Soto said Tuesday night, once he pinch-hit in the eighth and struck out against left-hander Tyler Matzek. “I just got to keep working hard and basically work on that specific part [triceps]. Because they say everything else looks strong and ready to go. My whole shoulder is ready to go and really strong. It’s just a little part.”
Soto, 22, was activated off the injured list Tuesday afternoon. He spent 15 days there with a strained left shoulder. His swings are pain-free, he says, and he has long tossed at 120 feet. But he hasn’t thrown to bases, a step he can’t skip before returning to right field. In the next two meetings with the Braves, it is likely that Yadiel Hernández or Andrew Stevenson starts in Soto’s place. Then Soto can join the lineup as a designated hitter at Yankee Stadium this weekend.
When he was 19 years old, Soto hit a pair of homers in the Bronx. They were part of a loud arrival that foreshadowed early stardom. And it’s that stardom — and his immense value to the Nationals — that will make them extra careful with his triceps and shoulder. It also helps that, at 12-13, they are toward the top of a crowded National League East.
“Tomorrow we will see how far we can go,” Soto said Tuesday of testing his shoulder. “And then we got to take a couple days to see how my arm responds.”
Hernandez played right and batted second in the series opener with the Braves. Josh Harrison hit behind him. That was a good illustration of how the order thins without Soto. Hernández, 33, is a career minor leaguer who earned more chances in Soto’s absence (to make room for Soto, the Nationals designated Hernán Pérez for assignment and kept Hernández on the roster). Harrison, also 33, was re-signed in October to be a utility man.
If they were hitting toward the bottom of the lineup, the Nationals could count their production as an added bonus. But having them second and third is suboptimal. When Soto starts again, he will bat in one of those spots. It will depend on where Manager Dave Martinez wants Trea Turner and whether he bumps Victor Robles back to leadoff. Either way, the offense is immediately much more dangerous than it has been. That’s the Juan Soto Effect.
He landed on the IL with a slash line of a .294 batting average, .403 on-base percentage and .451 slugging percentage. He was beginning to do the things that typically predict his success: lining the ball the other way, covering the outside of the plate, wasting breaking balls to extend his at-bats. He kept saying that him timing was almost there.
But that didn’t quite show in the fifth pinch-hit appearance of his career. Matzek, a hard-throwing lefty, attacked Soto with a curve and three fastballs. Every pitch was either in the middle or outside half. Soto took the first two strikes — the second a borderline call — before swinging through 96 mph heat. It made him appreciate players who pinch-hit for a living.
“I didn’t realize how tough it is for those guys,” Soto said. “They come in from the bench. It looks easy, but it’s not that easy to just hit a couple balls in the cage and then come out and face a guy at 97, 98. It’s kind of tough.”
If all goes well this week, he won’t have to figure out the role. Martinez told reporters Tuesday that Soto shouldn’t get used to it.