Notes: Soto's debut; Bell, Schwarber jacks

March 3rd, 2021

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The smile on 's face was nearly as big as his swing.

The 22-year-old right fielder had just made his Spring Training debut, and his excitement for his fourth Major League season was apparent.

“I’m happy to be back on the field,” Soto said following the Nationals’ 8-5 loss to the Marlins on Wednesday afternoon. “I’ve been asking for the games the whole spring. Finally, I get into a game and get a couple at-bats and get to feel that feeling again, more with the fans. I know it’s not too many, but you can hear them yelling around.”

Soto had been scheduled to make his Grapefruit League debut on Monday for the Nationals’ first home game, but he fouled a pitch off his right foot during batting practice on Sunday. The ball bounced underneath his shin guard, and the Nats pushed his start back two days out of caution.

“It feels really good,” he said. “It feels almost normal. Running around the bases, running around the field, it feels well.”

Hitting second in the lineup behind Victor Robles, Soto flied out to left field against Marlins starter Elieser Hernandez in his first at-bat. In the third vs. Zach Thompson, Soto grounded into a double play at shortstop.

“I know what I’m going to get from him,” Nats manager Dave Martinez said. “He hits a fly ball his first at-bat, and if you watch him, he puts his head down and makes a good turn at first base and gets halfway down to second. I love that. Even though it’s just a fly ball, the fact that his first game he goes out there and he’s hustling like that only tells me what we have in Juan Soto -- that he loves the game, he loves to play it right.”

Soto is coming off a 2020 season in which he posted head-turning numbers. His .351 average made him the youngest player to win the National League batting title, and his .490 on-base percentage, .695 slugging percentage, 1.185 OPS and 201 weighted runs created plus (wRC+) were the highest rates by a qualified hitter since Barry Bonds in 2004.

He also led baseball in intentional walks, and the Nationals added protection behind him in the lineup. On Wednesday, Soto was followed in the batting order by Trea Turner and newcomers Josh Bell and Kyle Schwarber (more on them below).

“It’s going to be a fun year with all these guys in here,” Soto said. “They want to walk me now, they can walk me. I won’t worry about it, because I know I have really good teammates behind me. They’re going to get their job done.”

‘Welcome to D.C.’

Offseason acquisitions Bell and Schwarber gave Nationals fans an early glimpse into their power at the plate. Schwarber sent a home run to the right-field corner in the second inning off Hernandez, and Bell belted one to the grassy hill behind center field in the fourth against Yimi García.

As Bell rounded the bases, a fan called out from the stands, “Welcome to D.C., Josh!”

Both players are looking to regain momentum at the plate this season. In 2020, Bell hit .226 with eight home runs for the Pirates, while Schwarber hit .188 with 11 homers for the Cubs.

Robles injury

Victor Robles exited the game in the fifth inning after being hit on the padding of his left elbow guard by a pitch from James Hoyt. Martinez took him out as a precaution, and said, “I think he’ll be fine.”

“As we all know, a lot of balls inside to Vic either graze him or hit him pretty good,” Martinez said. “It’s a little bit of a concern that we have. He stays in there, and he doesn’t move ‘til the last second. Whenever the ball’s in there like that, every time it’s in there and he moves, we almost always flinch.”

Up next

Right-hander Kyle Finnegan will get the start against the Mets at 1:10 p.m. ET on Thursday at Clover Park in Port St. Lucie, Fla. The game will be broadcast live on MLB.TV. Jon Lester was in line to make his Spring Training debut in this matchup, but he traveled to New York on Wednesday to undergo thyroid gland removal surgery on Friday.