WASHINGTON -- Late-game pinch-hit substitutions with a club facing a five-run deficit don't always garner roaring standing ovations. Then again, not every late-inning substitution is Juan Soto making his return from the injured list.
“I didn’t know the crowd was going to get me so pumped and they were going to get so happy,” Soto said following the Nationals’ 6-1 loss to the Braves, adding, “I didn’t realize how loud they can get sometimes. I just love it. I just love it."
Washington got its biggest bat back on Tuesday in the series opener against Atlanta, when the slugging right fielder was activated off the IL and was cleared in a pinch-hitting capacity. Soto had been on the shelf since April 20 with a strained left shoulder.
In his only plate appearance of the night, Soto struck out in a four-pitch at-bat against Braves lefty reliever Tyler Matzek during the eighth inning. Over 15 games this season, Soto is slashing .294/.403/.451 with two home runs.
“He’s been hitting the ball well,” manager Dave Martinez said before the game. “The throwing’s still a little bit of a concern. So for today, we’re going to use him as a pinch-hitter and then we’ll keep building him up. He’s still doing his throwing program, and we’ll see how he feels in the next couple of days.”
The Nationals do not have a timetable for Soto to return to right field. He was scheduled to do crow hop drills and emulate throwing on Tuesday. If that goes well, he could throw to “a couple” bases on Wednesday.
A key is waiting to see how his arm responds. Soto said he is not worried about long-term effects of the strain. His mindset is to be “smart” about his rehab work as he continues to throw.
A key for the Nationals is waiting to see how Soto's arm responds. Soto said he is not worried about long-term effects of the strain. His mindset is to be “smart” about his rehab work as he continues to throw.
“Obviously, we do miss Soto’s bat in the lineup,” Martinez said. “We’re going to give him some time to get this right so that he feels [like] himself, he feels ready and he goes out there and there’s no hesitation for him to get a ball and have to throw. With that being said, I’m going to be very cautious with him as well. We need him for the long haul.”
The Nationals had rallied in the absence of the reigning National League batting title holder. Soto is returning to a team that went 7-3 after he was placed on the IL and entered Tuesday in first place in the NL East. Yadiel Hernandez has given the team a boost filling in as the starting right fielder (.476 batting average in his last seven games).
The Nationals are approaching Soto's role on a day-by-day basis. If he continues to come off the bench for the Braves series, the Nats’ upcoming three-game series against the Yankees this weekend presents the opportunity to utilize him as the designated hitter.
“He wants to contribute in any way possible,” Martinez said. “To have him as a threat and plop him into situations where it could be a big moment is huge for our club.”
Right-handed reliever Will Harris was also activated from the IL on Tuesday after being sidelined since mid-March with right hand inflammation, and he pitched a scoreless eighth with two strikeouts. In corresponding moves, righty reliever Kyle McGowin was optioned to Triple-A Rochester and utility man Hernán Pérez was designated for assignment.
The Nationals are inching closer to a healthy roster. Starting southpaw Jon Lester made his season debut last Friday after missing nearly the first month on the IL because of COVID-19 protocol. Starting right-hander Stephen Strasburg is working his way back from right shoulder inflammation, and righty reliever Wander Suero is rehabbing from a left oblique strain.