The news just minutes before the Washington Nationals took the field against the St. Louis Cardinals might have been devastating: Juan Soto was scratched from the lineup and placed on the 10-Day Injured List.
The team described his injury as a left shoulder strain, a circumspect and typically ambiguous statement from a team that does not like to talk about injuries.
Manager Davey Martinez said after the 3-2 Nationals win over St. Louis that Soto was scratched about 45 minutes before game time because he had been complaining of triceps pain in recent days. An MRI revealed the shoulder strain, so Martinez and GM Mike Rizzo decided not to take any chances this early in the season.
“For me and Rizz it was a no-brainer to put him on the IL to get him right and get him ready when he’s ready.” said Martinez.
So we really don’t know much more about the health of the Nationals’ offensive leader than we did before the game. Of course, we’ll all await future diagnoses and the prognosis and some will stew about how the team will overcome the loss of one of the game’s top young superstars.
“It’s huge. He’s a huge part of our lineup,” said Martinez. “I talked to the boys after the game, and I said, ‘Hey, we got to keep battling every day.’ “
So the Nationals will have to play a few games, possibly go two weeks if the injury isn’t severe without Soto in the lineup.
Let’s not even think about a longer absence until we know more.
“He can still run, he can do core work, he can do leg exercises, we don’t want him to throw for a few days just to see how he feels,“ said Martinez. “He says it doesn’t really bother him swinging the bat, so hopefully he continues to get better here soon.”
So what are the Nats to do? Can the team remain competitive as it faces three division foes and a good Toronto team? Here are some scenarios that could play out successfully for the Nationals.
Stevo steps up: The opportunity is the greatest for the man replacing Soto in right field, Andrew Stevenson. A contact hitter with speed and good base-running instincts, he’s naturally slotted in the leadoff spot. Given that the Nationals have yet to find a leadoff hitter who can help them win games, this would be an ideal time for the 26-year-old to step up and claim the job.
Of course, that might mean a decision on what to do with starting center fielder Victor Robles when Soto returns, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves
Bell-ringers and Shwarbombs: Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber, the Nats’ two biggest offensive acquisitions have had uneven seasons so far. Bell showed signs of coming around with his first homer of the season, even if he did ground out with the go-ahead run on third base in the eighth inning Tuesday against St. Louis. Schwarber already has a walk-off home run and three doubles, but his average is just .216 on the season. If these two sluggers get going behind a consistent Trea Turner and a leadoff man who’s on base a lot, the Nationals will score some runs without Soto.
Arms to the rescue: The best news the Nats could get last night was six shutout innings from starter Patrick Corbin in his best performance of the season. It came just in time, too, after Stephen Strasburg’s shoulder injury sent him to the IL. We also haven’t yet seen the third top starter the Nats picked up in the offseason, Jon Lester. He’s working his arm back into shape after parathyroid surgery and COVID shut him down before the season started.
Martinez said Tuesday that Lester threw four innings and 74 pitches in a simulated game and the team will reevaluate how he feels in the morning.
The Nats are sure to go at least as slow with him as they have with Corbin. But if Lester can be effective, even for a few innings, then the Nats’ sturdier 2021 bullpen will have a chance to bring some games home.