Soto makes 'very fun' surprise showing as PH

July 4th, 2022

WASHINGTON -- The Nationals were five outs away from being shut out by a Juan Soto-less lineup on Monday afternoon by the Marlins. The slugging right fielder was sidelined by left calf tightness, and Washington’s bats had been quieted by an efficient Braxton Garrett.

But after utility player  got the offense going by drawing the Nats’ first walk of the day in the eighth and Luis García drove him in with a game-tying RBI single, the Nationals found themselves in position to rally.

With runners on first and second, Victor Robles walked back to the dugout from his turn in the order. There was about to be an in-game substitution -- who would emerge onto the field to pinch-hit for the center fielder?

Then, the familiar beat dropped.

“Esa Muchacha” by Los Hermanos Rosario blared through the loudspeakers at Nationals Park. The fans, having heard that song ahead of countless momentous at-bats, rose to their feet and erupted with a knowing, enthusiastic ovation.

“It was something unexpected,” García said following the Nationals’ 10-inning, 3-2 loss. “I turned around looking at center field, and I started hearing the crowd cheer and obviously make a lot of noise. It was very fun and exciting.”

Manager Dave Martinez, looking for a clutch at-bat, gave Soto the green light to enter the game. Soto had been taking swings in the batting cage during the afternoon, and he felt OK to hit. While he could not run the bases, he still could make an impact with his patience at the plate.

Soto took four straight pitches from Marlins reliever Zach Pop to draw his league-leading 68th walk of the season. He extended the inning and was replaced by pinch-runner Alcides Escobar before Pop retired Lane Thomas and Josh Bell without the Nationals plating another run.

“He gave us the best available opportunity, whether he’s going to walk or do something [else],” said Martinez. “As you saw, he walked, we had one out, bases loaded. We knew that he couldn’t run the bases, so we had to do something else there. But I thought, ‘If they want to walk him, great. We’ve got top of the order coming up.’”

Soto’s status will remain day to day as the Nationals head to Philadelphia on Tuesday for a three-game series against the Phillies. The 23-year-old experienced tightness behind his left knee on Sunday after throwing on a Bryan De La Cruz double to right field in the third inning, and it persisted the following frame while he was caught in a rundown on the basepaths. The results of an MRI taken Sunday evening showed “everything was fine,” Soto said Monday morning.

“You don’t want to go out of the game that easy,” Soto said. “So I want to be out there, I want to give it my 100 percent, so why not try it again? But definitely, whenever I start feeling something that is not right, I just make the decision to pull out of the game.”

There is no copy-and-paste solution for substituting a player like Soto, who has reached base safely in 15 consecutive contests. The Nationals were 0-2 in the pair of games he missed in mid-June after slipping and banging his right knee on the corner of the dugout bench. Defensively, they can shift Thomas or  to right field, with Adrianza being versatile enough to play left field.

If the Nationals can only utilize Soto as a pinch-hitter in the short-term, they will maximize the opportunities with him at the plate.

“I was actually hoping for ‘a Kirk Gibson,’” Martinez said, referring to the historic 1988 World Series pinch-hit home run. “But he stayed within himself and walked.”