Ecstatic Soto rejoins Nats: 'It feels amazing'

August 1st, 2020

WASHINGTON -- leapt in the air as he reached the batter’s box. He had been cleared to play ball for the first time during the regular season, and he was going to celebrate his homer to left field in Saturday’s intrasquad scrimmage with a bang. Soto slammed his feet as he landed on home plate, the noise strong enough to be heard five levels up in the press box.

“It feels amazing,” Soto said.

After two delays to start his third Major League season, Soto was cleared to rejoin the Nationals on Saturday morning. His first participation in Summer Camp was stalled, and he was placed on the COVID-19 Injured List on Opening Day on July 23 after receiving a positive result. He has been following protocols seriously, and no other members of the Nats have tested positive since him.

Soto received two negative test results at least 24 hours apart to pass Major League Baseball’s requirements on Tuesday. The next step was being cleared by the D.C. Department of Health’s guidelines, which restricted him from participating until Saturday.

“He showed up here to play baseball,” manager Dave Martinez said. “Now he had two stints where he had to sit in his apartment and do absolutely nothing, just what he could do inside his apartment. So that is frustrating. Hopefully, like I told him, let’s put this all behind us and let’s get you ready to play and help us win ballgames and do what you love to do.”

The past weeks have been challenging for Soto, who was eager to carry over the momentum of his standout sophomore season, which included five postseason homers. The closest he was able to get to playing was taking swings while watching live games on television. He also synced his workouts with the Nationals broadcasts. When they were in the field, he’d ride his stationary bike. When they were up to bat, he’d do core and shoulder exercises.

“It's been a really tough time,” Soto said. “I tried to do my best. I tried to be following the rules and do all that kind of stuff. It's been a tough time. I tried to just keep my mind clean and try to not think too much about it. ... The moments are going to come, so that was my mindset.”

A beaming Soto arrived at Nationals Park early Saturday ready to get to work. The team had mapped out a program for him to back in baseball shape that includes taking extra swings in batting practice and running the bases to get re-adapted to the turns.

“First time I saw him, he comes in my office with that big ol’ smile,” Martinez said. “Besides him being a baseball player, that’s what I miss about Juan -- his personality, having him around, that big smile. We love the kid. He’s part of the family. So to get him back here, getting him going again, guys were excited. I know he was extremely excited to be back.”

No date has been determined for Soto’s first game of the 2020 season. Martinez first wants to see an improvement in the 22-year-old’s timing, and noted his legs felt “a little sluggish.” The team will further evaluate Soto’s availability on Sunday after seeing how he recovers from his first scrimmage.

“He makes it look kind of easy sometimes, but he knows,” Martinez said. “He said he feels like he’s a little behind with his timing. So we’re just going to try to get him as many at-bats again tomorrow as he’s capable, and then we’ll go from there.”

Soto certainly made the game look easy when he rocked his homer off right-hander Kyle McGowin to the opposite field. He stamped his first day back with an exclamation point, already back in competitive mode.

“We had a couple guys behind me, they were like, 'Hey, when are you going to start hitting the ball?'” Soto said. “Since I hit it, I just looked at them and said, 'Ballgame. It's over.'"