Juan Soto returned from a stint on the Injured List for a left shoulder strain back on May 4th, after missing 10 games, but the plan as laid out by Nationals’ manager Davey Martinez was to work Washington’s 22-year-old slugger back in slowly as they built up his shoulder for the throws he would have to make once he returned to right field.
Pinch hitting, as Soto did in his return to the club, was something relatively new for the four-year veteran, who hadn’t pinch hit since his first year in the majors in 2018, when he did it a total of four times.
He struck out the first time up off the IL on the 4th, and said he remembered just how hard a job it is.
“I just remember my debut was as a pinch hitter. And it going the same way, strikeout,” Soto told reporters that night.
“I didn’t realize how tough it is for those guys who come in from the bench.
“It looks easy, but it’s not that easy to come out, just hit a couple balls in the cage, and then come out and face a guy 97-98. It’s kind of tough.
“I got my respect for those guys and I’m just going to try in these last couple days.”
Soto went 0 for 3 in three pinch hit appearances as the Nationals got swept in their three-game set with the Atlanta Braves in the nation’s capital, but with the DH on the road for a three-game series with the New York Yankees in Yankee Stadium, Martinez was able to put Soto back in the lineup as a starter for the first time since he returned.
“He’s DHing,” the manager said before the series opener. “He’s going to throw to the bases today. But he’ll be batting third, he’ll DH today.”
Once he throws without feeling anything in his shoulder, Soto will return to right field, but for now, he’s going to be a designated hitter.
“I think if he gets through today, we’ll see how he feels tomorrow with the throwing,” Martinez explained.
“I think if he shows up tomorrow, he might be good to go, but like I said, it’s all going to depend on how he feels. Hopefully he gets through today — he’s going to throw a few balls to second base, a couple to third base after his throwing program, and then we’ll see how he feels after that.”
The advantage of having Soto serve as a DH, the manager said, is that they could get Soto up for multiple at bats instead of for one per game.
“He gets four at bats which he’s accustomed to, so I expect him to go out there and see the ball. The biggest thing with him right now is just accept his walks like he always does, and when he gets a good pitch he’s going to swing the bat. The good news is, and he talked about it today, he gets an opportunity to get four at bats in one game, instead of one.”
Though they’re taking things slowly, Soto didn’t see live pitching for a couple weeks while he was out, and the Nationals need to get him going at the plate as big a part of the offense as he is.
“Getting four consistent at bats today and getting him in there tomorrow again is definitely going to help him,” Martinez said. “He’s got such a good approach.
Enjoy life...— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) May 7, 2021
Like Juan Soto enjoys hitting. pic.twitter.com/iEWETqvwdk
“I don’t want him to think about hitting homers or anything, I just want him to have good at bats, and like I said, swing at strikes and put the ball in play. He’s really good at that.
“Yesterday I thought he had a great at bat, he lined out to left field. It’s just a matter of his timing right now, because he hasn’t played, but it’s getting better. But the consistency of getting four at bats and seeing a bunch of pitches today is definitely going to help.”
Getting some PH appearances, Martinez said, also helped Soto gain some perspective on another job on the major league roster.
“I think he learned a lot about just getting one at bat, and a different appreciation for the guys that do that as pinch hitters. So at least now he understands what it’s like, and like I said, he’s excited to go out there and get four at bats today.”
Soto went 2 for 5 as the DH in New York, grounding out the first time up against Yankees’ righty Jameson Taillon, striking out looking at a 2-2 fastball in his second trip to the plate, and again in the sixth, before singling in the eighth, and homering in the ninth. Welcome back, Juan Soto.
His manager liked what he saw.
“I’ve always said that he understands the hitting portion of this game very well as a young hitter,” Martinez said after the Nationals’ 11-4 win.
“The big thing is, and we talk about this with him, is that those few at bats we gave him as a pinch hitter really helped his timing out a lot, so when he was able to get four at bats today, you saw what he can do.
“It’s really nice to have him back. Really nice to have him in there and getting those at bats.”