After a dismal doubleheader that found ways to hit the Washington Nationals in the gut again and again Saturday, the sun emerged over Nationals Park and hope glittered in the clubhouse Sunday morning, flashing off the smile of 19-year-old prospect Juan Soto, the kid no one thought would be here this soon.
His arrival did not save the Nationals from being swept this weekend, from dropping Sunday’s finale, 7-2, to the limping Los Angeles Dodgers. His promise could not fend off another injury; veteran setup man Ryan Madson was placed on the disabled list with a sore pectoral muscle. This team had steadied itself until this latest slew of injuries shook its foundation again, so much so that no one man can heal the wounds.
The Nationals felt Madson’s absence Sunday. Without him, Wander Suero and Shawn Kelley surrendered insurance runs to the Dodgers late that buried the Nationals, who are 24-21. They also felt the absence of all their injured outfielders, of Daniel Murphy, of Matt Wieters . . . and so on, slowly becoming a team too beat up to be the same but unwilling to concede.
“It’s unfortunate,” said Stephen Strasburg, who threw 6⅔ innings in the loss. “I think you can sit here and feel sorry for yourself, but I know the other team’s not doing that. So we still have to go out there and compete with whoever’s out there and just be patient.”
Transition happens little by little, an accumulation of moments that feel smaller in isolation. Injury by injury, setback by setback, these Nationals are becoming something different. They are not unrecognizable, not when Strasburg allows three runs and strikes out seven, as he did Sunday. He and fellow members of the Nationals’ rotation continue to serve as the foundation for a team whose offense and bullpen have been rocked by gusts of uncertainty and injury squalls.
“We’re just going to hold the helm through this storm,” Strasburg said, “and we’ll be okay.”
When the season began, the Nationals were loaded with outfield depth and had a bench built for late October. Six weeks later, the Nationals started Sunday in such desperation that a teenager who began the season in low Class A ball could now feel like such a savior.
As Soto walked around the clubhouse in quiet joy Sunday morning, his fellow young Dominican outfielder Victor Robles celebrated his birthday with an elbow brace on his throwing arm and his fellow young Dominican outfielder Rafael Bautista was enduring the immediate aftermath of tearing up his knee in a collision days before.
As cameras swarmed the teenager, 34-year-old veteran Howie Kendrick limped in on crutches, his recently ruptured Achilles’ tendon protected by a knee-high brace. As Soto headed for the big league batting cage for the first time, the man cut to make room for him, Moises Sierra, hugged Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo and said, “Thank you for everything.” Not long after, Bryce Harper, the only other teenager to appear for this franchise, headed over to shake Soto’s hand.
Perhaps, someday, Sunday will be the day the Juan Soto era began — the beginning of the end of the Bryce Harper era, the beginning of the story of the next great Nationals superstar. Stories like those evolve day by day, too, an accumulation of far more moments than the first one.
The first moment had to wait. He didn’t start the game against Dodgers left-hander Alex Wood and his unorthodox delivery. Though Soto’s minor league splits indicate the lefty is actually hitting left-handed pitching better than right-handed pitching this season, the Nationals wanted to ease him in.
Without him, the Nationals’ lineup struggled to create many chances against Wood, whose only costly mishap came against Trea Turner in the second inning. Turner hit a two-run homer to left-center field, a blow that gave the Nationals a one-run lead. Turner is one of those young players undergoing that subtle transition into stardom.
Quietly, the 24-year-old is emerging as a favorite to start the All-Star Game at shortstop for the National League, second among qualified NL shortstops with 1.5 wins above replacement this season. Only Paul DeJong, who just broke his hand and will be out for some time, has accumulated more (1.6).
More problematic, however, is that Turner’s 1.5 WAR leads the Nationals. Whether because of injuries, underperformance or some combination of the two, their stars are not carrying them. The Nationals averaged just more than two runs in three games against the Dodgers this weekend.
“As the games progress, we got to start taking our walks again,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “For me, our offense, if they’re just going to walk us, walk us. Don’t start chasing.”
Not chasing is what got Soto here in the first place. His precocious plate discipline is the one thing that kept coming up in the clubhouse as members of the organization talked about his arrival. He got his first chance to showcase it when the Dodgers brought in right-hander Erik Goeddel to start the eighth inning, by which time the Nationals were down three.
Soto stepped in, wearing No. 22. Half of the 40,000 people at Nationals Park stood to greet him — or, perhaps subconsciously, all that he might bring someday. After all, the most he could do by the eighth inning Sunday was shave a run off a three-run deficit. He struck out on four pitches. The fans cheered him off the field anyway.
Soto became the 10th player since 2001 to debut in the big leagues at 19 years old, the eighth position player — third drafted or signed by Rizzo. He is the first major leaguer ever born after the Rays and Diamondbacks played their first games. He is the youngest player in the majors, once thought a part of the Nationals’ distant future, now needed desperately in the present.