Max Scherzer and Juan Soto appear to be good to go after suffering minor injuries and are expected to make their spring training game debuts in the next few days.
Scherzer, who sprained his left ankle two weeks before camp opened, threw to live hitters Monday for the first time this spring. He is scheduled to throw a light bullpen session Wednesday, and barring any setbacks is lined up to start Friday night against the Cardinals, according to pitching coach Jim Hickey.
"As long as he responds well," Hickey said today from West Palm Beach, Fla., during a Zoom session with reporters. "And I think that he will."
Scherzer never expressed significant concern about the ankle sprain's potential to disrupt his preparation for opening night, but he did need to take a step back and wait to continue his throwing program until the injury healed. That seemed to leave him behind his rotation mates, but if he starts Friday he'll actually make his 2021 Grapefruit League debut before Stephen Strasburg or Patrick Corbin do.
Soto, meanwhile, is now slated to make his game debut Wednesday against the Marlins, two days later than originally planned after he fouled a ball off his right foot.
The 22-year-old slugger was able to make it through today's workout with no issues, spending time on defensive drills in the outfield and taking batting practice. That convinced club officials he's ready to play.
"He'll play tomorrow," manager Davey Martinez said. "He's fine. He's good. He took a pretty nasty foul ball off his foot. I just wanted to give him a day, get him back on his feet."
The Nationals' first two games of the spring saw candidates for the No. 5 starter's job take the ball: Erick Fedde in Sunday's opener against the Cardinals, Austin Voth on Monday against the Astros. They'll being using a string of relievers Wednesday against the Marlins before Jon Lester becomes the first veteran rotation member to start Thursday against the Mets.
Strasburg was ready to start Wednesday, but Hickey wanted the right-hander instead to throw a two-inning live batting practice session against teammates as a final tune-up. That would then put Strasburg in position to make his actual game debut as soon as Monday versus the Mets.
The 2019 World Series MVP made only two starts last summer before needing carpal tunnel surgery on his right wrist. He has said he has prepared this spring just like any previous one when healthy and hasn't needed to be held back in any way.
"He's in a very good spot right now; normal, if you want to call it that," Hickey said. "He's responded to everything that we've asked him to do, and responded well. So I'm extremely happy with where he's at. But I think the thing that's most impressive about him ... is just the whole entire package of how he goes about his business from the time he gets in the door until the time that he walks out. A great example for these younger guys, as well."
* Add one more reason to believe things could be better this season for Carter Kieboom than they were last year: The young third baseman had laser eye surgery during the offseason.
Kieboom, who already talked about changes he's made to his batting stance (raising his hands higher and away from his chest) as an avenue to improvement following a rough rookie season, appears also to be seeing the ball better after his procedure, which hitting coach Kevin Long revealed today.
"He's got a different feel about him. He's much more confident than I expected him to be coming into spring training being," Long said. "He's loose. I like the way he's going about it right now, and that's just from a confidence-looking-at-him standpoint. He seems to be in a much spot than I ever saw him last year.
"He did some stuff with his eyes, and he's seeing the ball a lot better. He's not squinting. Apparently the LASIK that he had is working. His swing, putting his hands back into a better position, he looks good. We'll continue to monitor Carter and see where he's at, but mentally - which I think is more important than anything right now - he's in a very, very good position. He's very, very positive, upbeat. He's bringing energy and life every single day. I think that's half the battle, and we're seeing that from him."
* For all those desperately waiting to know if fans will be allowed at Nationals Park on opening night, the District of Columbia today gave an answer: You're going to have to wait another two weeks before knowing for sure.
Though the city has approved the team's request to hold games at Nationals Park (which otherwise wouldn't be permitted based on the continued ban on large gatherings), officials denied the club's request to allow a limited number of fans at games for now, according to a letter delivered to the team and made public by the city today.
The letter from Dr. Christopher Rodriguez, the District's director of homeland security and emergency management, to Gregory McCarthy, the Nationals' senior vice president of community relations, states the matter will be revisited in a couple weeks.
"The opportunity to have fans will be reexamined as the public health metrics associated with COVID-19 evolve in the District," Rodriguez wrote. "We are assessing the prevalence and impact of new, more transmissible viral strains on the progress we are making through our various public health measures, including our vaccination program, and expect to be able to get you some word on ticket sales for fans in the middle of the month. With you, we are looking forward to fans returning to Nats Park. Answers as to how many and when are still premature."
The Nationals are scheduled to host the Mets on April 1 for a nationally televised opening night game. The governors of some other states featuring major league teams, including Pennsylvania and Ohio, have already announced plans to allow stadiums to be filled to various capacities on opening day.
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