Davey Martinez wanted to give a heads-up to Juan Soto about his plans for tonight’s game, so the first-year manager texted the 19-year-old slugger this morning and told him he would be in the Nationals’ lineup for the first time, starting in left field and batting sixth against the Padres.
A few hours later, when Martinez arrived in the clubhouse at Nationals Park, Soto immediately greeted him with a smile.
“He was the first guy I saw when I came in,” Martinez said. “He shook my hand, gave me a hug and said: ‘I’m ready.’ And I said: ‘I know you are!’”
There will be no shortage of enthusiasm in left field tonight as Soto completes his remarkable ascension up the organizational ladder. A precocious member of the low-Single-A Hagerstown Suns only four weeks ago, he has since been promoted three times: to high-Single A Potomac on April 23, to Double-A Harrisburg on May 10, to Washington on May 20.
And after striking out as a pinch-hitter Sunday in his first career at-bat, Soto tonight gets his first opportunity to start and show off the dynamic offensive skills that allowed him to reach the big leagues only a month after he was in Hagerstown.
Martinez could have elected to again sit the lefty slugger against Padres left-hander Robbie Erlin one day after taking that route against Dodgers left-hander Alex Wood. But left-handed batters have actually performed slightly better against Erlin in his career than right-handed batters, and Soto hit a stout .432 (19-for-44) with five homers against lefties this season in the minors.
“The splits on their lefty weren’t that bad, so I thought this would be a good matchup for him,” Martinez said. “Just let him go out there and get some at-bats. Like I told him: ‘Just go out there and have some fun.’”
Soto joined Bryce Harper in the Nationals’ first hitting group for batting practice this afternoon and drew just as many onlookers as his more-accomplished teammate. Though the highlights were several home runs (one to left-center, one to center, one into the second deck in right-center), perhaps most notable was Soto’s advanced approach to his BP session. He went almost exclusively to left field his first couple rounds, then moved to left-center and center the next couple rounds. He pulled only a few balls to right-center and right.
Soto has spent the vast majority of his time in the minors (108 out of 117 games) in right field, but that position obviously is currently occupied in Washington, where the immediate need is on the other side of the field. So Soto is playing left field tonight and will continue to focus on that position, taking all his pregame work there.
Martinez joined Bob Henley this afternoon in offering some pointers to both Soto and Adrian Sanchez, a career infielder who is trying to learn the outfield as well in case of emergency.
“I like to work with all those guys, but I wanted to go out there and just tell him we do these drills every day,” the manager said. “We do it with Matt Adams, as well. Just working on their first step, and it was a lot of fun. What I realized is that I’m not a spring chicken. I can’t be doing those drills too much. But it was fun to get out on the field and do some stuff with them.”
Soto finds himself in this situation because of the spate of injuries suffered by Nationals outfielders, from Adam Eaton’s ankle surgery to Howie Kendrick’s ruptured Achilles’ tendon to Brian Goodwin’s bruised wrist to Victor Robles’ hyperextended elbow to Rafael Bautista’s torn ACL.
There was encouraging news on at least one of those fronts today: Eaton played catch up to about 120 feet today for the first time since he had arthroscopic surgery on his left ankle 11 days ago. The outfielder, who has said he believes he can return six weeks after surgery, was hopping around and showing off his mobility to trainers and other onlookers.
Daniel Murphy, meanwhile, still has not played in a game in West Palm Beach despite returning to extended spring training early last week. According to Martinez, the veteran second baseman is still battling “a horrible bug” and also has been plagued by heavy rain in Florida.