At some point on the way back to Nationals Park from the Dominican Republic, Juan Soto came into contact with someone who eventually tested positive for COVID-19, so the 21-year-old who’s taken the baseball world by storm over the past two seasons had to stay at home for the last two weeks before he was cleared to come back and start working to get ready for the 60-game, 2020 campaign which starts next week.
“It was tough,” Soto acknowledged after he got multiple at bats in the Nats’ sim game in the nation’s capital. “It was tough for me, because I wanted to be back so bad, but I got through all that and now we’re back.”
Soto’s back. Howie Kendrick returned too, after being stuck in the same situation.
“First and foremost I’m super-happy that they’re back,” Davey Martinez said when he spoke to reporters on a Zoom call after the game, which the Nationals won.
“They were happy to be back. It was nice to put them in the lineup and watch them.
“I’ve talked to both of them and told them that we’re going to have to push you a little bit, but you’re going to have to be honest with me, and tell me where you feel you’re at.
“Try to get you as many at bats as we can in the next four or five days, but they have to be honest with me. That’s kind of where we’re at right now to try to get them ready.”
Soto, coming off a .282/.401/.548, 32 double, 34 home run, 4.8 fWAR 2019 campaign and a .277/.373/.554, three double, five home run postseason on the way to the World Series title, is just excited to get back to work now, after being stuck in his “really small apartment” for the last few weeks.
“I just feel back at home,” Soto said of his return to Nationals Park. “Back with my team and with the World Champions.”
Martinez said he was pretty sure that both Kendrick and Soto took some swings while they were stuck at home, even if they were just dry swings inside their homes, but Soto said he actually wasn’t able to swing a bat.
“I mean, it’s tough, I wasn’t taking swings in my house, because it’s a really small apartment.
“I just tried to work out. They gave me a bike, they brought me a bike to my house. And a couple things to just lift.
“I was trying to keep my legs in shape and everything, but I wasn’t swinging at all.”
He still jumped right back in on his first day and played alongside his teammates, getting multiple at bats.
“I tried to do my best out there,” he said. “But to be back is so exciting. I was really excited this morning and just thinking about how it was going to be, if we could have fun the same way we did last year, or is it going to be different?
“But since I see this today, it was about the same.”
Martinez was asked if he talked to the new arrivals about how the last few weeks went for them as they waited to get cleared to return. He did. How was it?
“Horrible,” he said.
“They wanted to be with their teammates. They wanted to be here. They wanted to get ready for the season and they just couldn’t do anything. So, for them it was just a waiting game, and they were able to come join us today, and like I said, they were happy, excited.
“We put a nice welcome back sign in the clubhouse for them. So, they were good. They want to come in and help us contribute and help us win.”
Having them available again, Martinez said, got him thinking too.
“It was nice to see the middle of my lineup out there,” the manager said.
“And kind of all of a sudden the wheels started spinning about lineups and different things, and watching these guys, you take two of those guys, who, Juan is a young exciting player, but a really young, good hitter. And you take Howie, who is just a professional hitter, doesn’t see any pitches, and goes up and hits a bullet to center field in his first at bat.
“Pretty impressive. You put those two guys in our lineup they can make things happen and drive in big runs for us. So I’m excited about that.”
What is Soto going to have to do to get ramped up and ready for the start of the season, which is now just a week away?
“For me it’s going to be my body,” Soto said. “Try to keep my body in shape. Try to make it loose again, try to get strong is going to be the toughest part. But I think the work I did, it was good.
“Good place to start. I think that’s the only thing. Right now my swing feels really good, I was seeing the ball really well today in the game, and I think we’re going to be good. The only thing is just try to keep my body in shape.”
The most exciting part about having Opening Day just a week away? New York’s Yankees in D.C. (or somewhere else)? Gerrit Cole on the mound if everything goes as planned?
What is it? “Just starting to have fun again,” Soto said.
“Going to face one of the best pitchers in the league. I’m just going to try to have fun, and try to take my at bats and try to get some runs for my team.
“That’s the only thing I look forward to. Try to win the game, try to win the series, try to go back-to-back.”