Uplifting as the Nationals’ 3-2 victory over the Cardinals on Tuesday night was, it could not erase the fact Juan Soto is now on the injured list and a ballclub already dealing with more issues than it ever thought possible in late April has another one to contend with.
The transaction to place Soto on the 10-day IL with a left shoulder strain caught everyone off guard. It came about 45 minutes before first pitch of the game, about three hours after the Nats announced a lineup that originally had him starting in right field and batting second.
“I was little confused,” said shortstop Trea Turner, who suddenly became the club’s No. 3 hitter.
How - and when - did this all happen?
According to manager Davey Martinez, Soto first began complaining of a tight left triceps muscle a couple days ago. When things didn’t get any better, the Nationals had Soto undergo an MRI on Tuesday morning. By late afternoon, the results were in: He had a strained shoulder muscle.
The team could’ve simply scratched Soto from the lineup, said he was day-to-day and waited to make a more concrete decision. Instead, they immediately put him on the IL, a move that may have had something to do with their upcoming schedule.
“It’s early. We’ve got some days off (coming up), so we thought: ‘Hey, we’re not going to take any chances with him,’” Martinez said during a Zoom session with reporters. “We’re just going to try to get him right as quick as possible.”
Because they have three scheduled off-days in the next week-plus, the Nationals could theoretically only be without Soto for seven games, though that presupposes he’ll be cleared to return to action soon.
For now, Soto is restricted in what he can do on the field. He can run through conditioning drills. He can even take swings without experiencing much discomfort, Martinez said. Throwing appears to be more of an issue at this point.
The Nationals wrap up their six-game homestand this afternoon with one more game against the Cardinals. They’re off Thursday, then head to New York for a weekend series against the Mets. After that is a two-game series in Dunedin, Fla., against the relocated Blue Jays, with off days on both ends.
Martinez said Soto won’t be traveling with the club on this trip. He’ll stay in D.C., and if and when he’s cleared to resume baseball activities, he’ll head to the alternate training site in Fredericksburg. If everything somehow goes perfectly right, he could return to the Nationals lineup as soon as April 30.
In the meantime, though, the Nats will have to try to proceed without their best hitter. Production will need to come from several others, whether in the form of Turner, Josh Bell (who launched his first homer of the season Tuesday) or Kyle Schwarber (owner of a .216 batting average, .256 on-base percentage and .635 OPS in nine games played to date).
“I say it all the time, but it’s true: It’s not a one-man show. It’s a team sport,” said Turner, who delivered the game-tying single in the bottom of the eighth. “We need to pitch well, we need to play good defense and we need to hit. Hopefully we can pick him up.”
Easier said than done. The Nationals lineup takes on an entirely different look with Soto out. Turner, who had been settling back into the leadoff spot over the last week, now finds himself potentially as the club’s new No. 3 hitter until Soto returns.
Andrew Stevenson, a solid fourth outfielder in normal times, now will probably get the bulk of starts in right field and try to continue to reach base from a spot atop the lineup.
And Josh Harrison, who had been batting fifth or sixth since coming off the COVID-19-related injury list, is getting bumped up to the No. 2 position, where his ability to make contact (he struck out Tuesday for the first time in 2021) could pay off and help give Turner more opportunities to bat with runners on base.
It’s hardly what anyone expected when this season began. But as the Nationals have learned far too many times in recent years, things hardly ever actually turn out as anyone expected.