Juan Soto, Howie Kendrick and Luis García were cleared to participate in workouts at Nationals Park today after two weeks of quarantine required for those who either tested positive for COVID-19 or were exposed to someone who did.
Soto and Kendrick were among the biggest names among the group of 11 Nationals players who had not initially been cleared to join the rest of the roster at Nationals Park when summer training opened two weeks ago. Second baseman Starlin Castro was cleared July 9 and has participated in camp since. Relievers Wander Suero and Roenis Elías were placed on the 10-day injured list Monday. Prospects Joan Adon and Steven Fuentes were also cleared today and will report to the club’s alternate training site in Fredericksburg.
Soto and Kendrick now face a furious scramble to try to get ready for opening night against the Yankees, which is only seven days away. If tonight’s intrasquad game was any indication, they’re going to push themselves to make it in time.
Both Soto and Kendrick started in the game and each took six at-bats (one each inning, with regular lineup rules relaxed for this informal scrimmage). Soto went 1-for-5 with a walk and lined an opposite-field single to left. Kendrick went 1-for-6, starting his evening off with a line drive single to center.
“He just goes up there and hits a bullet to center field his first at-bat,” Martinez said. “Pretty impressive.”
Kendrick served as the designated hitter in his first game back, but Soto actually played four innings in left field, a surprise to his manager.
“This was a testament to these guys, what they did in the past three months they were at home,” Martinez said. “These guys really took it upon themselves to stay ready, and they looked good.”
Though Soto felt well throughout his mandatory, 14-day quarantine, he was severely limited in what he could do to stay in shape because he was confined to his local apartment. He said he never picked up a bat during these last two weeks and mostly tried to keep his mind off the fact he wasn’t working out with his teammates.
“I just tried to forget about it, tried to keep my mind away from everything,” he said. “I just tried to relax and work out. But it was tough. It was tough for me, because I wanted to be back so bad. But I got through all that, and now we’re back.”
Two weeks into this abbreviated camp, the Nationals had been without two-thirds of their projected opening night lineup. It was particularly an issue in the outfield, with right fielder Adam Eaton the only regular who has been able to participate to date and reserves Michael A. Taylor and Andrew Stevenson typically joining him during drills and intrasquad games.
Martinez hasn’t been able to toy with different lineup combinations, either. For the most part, he has gone with a top four of Trea Turner, Eaton, Castro and Eric Thames, but Soto certainly will take one of those spots, and it’s possible Kendrick or Robles could hit near the top of the lineup on some days as well.
“It was nice to see the middle of my lineup out there,” Martinez said. “All of a sudden, the wheels started spinning about lineups and things.”
The three arriving players were greeted in the clubhouse today with a “Welcome Back” message on video boards. After some initial pleasantries, it was right to work for a group of guys who now face a tight timeline to be ready for the 2020 season.
“It was nice,” Soto said, “because I see that and everything, and I just feel back at home, back with my team. And we’re the world champions.”