Though both superstars are now eligible to come off the 10-day IL, neither has been able to pass the throwing tests necessary to be activated.
Soto, out since April 20 with a left shoulder strain, did begin some light tossing Thursday for the first time, manager Davey Martinez said in today’s pregame Zoom session with reporters. He was due to take the field at Nationals Park and attempt to ramp things up this afternoon.
“He’s feeling a lot better,” Martinez said. “But like I’ve said, this is something we’re going to watch him progress and hopefully get him through, so that when we get him back, there’s no more concerns about his shoulder. Believe me, I miss him in that lineup. I want him back as soon as possible. But we need to be smart about it.”
The good news: Soto’s swing hasn’t been hampered by the injury, so he’s been able to stay in shape at the plate during his IL stint. But the Nationals need to ensure he can throw to infielders without risk of more serious injury before they’ll clear him to play.
For now, the club continues to give Yadiel Hernandez a chance to start in right field, and tonight the 33-year-old rookie is literally taking over Soto’s role as the No. 3 hitter against the Marlins. It’s a reflection not only of Soto’s absence but also the struggles of more established middle-of-the-order hitters Josh Bell, Kyle Schwarber and Starlin Castro. But Hernandez has done everything in his power to earn the chance; in 11 games he’s batting .333 (7-for-21) with a double, a homer, three RBIs and a .924 OPS.
Lester’s return from the COVID-19 IL gives the Nationals a five-man rotation again. Thanks to a spate of recent off-days, they were able to get by with only four starters during their just-completed road trip. But at some point in the not-too-distant future they hope to add Strasburg to the mix.
The veteran right-hander, out since April 18 with inflammation in his shoulder, has steadily progressed in his throwing program on flat ground and has built himself up to long-tossing from 200 feet. The next big step is expected to come this weekend when he throws off a bullpen mound for the first time.
“If that goes well, we’ll see what the progression is from there,” Martinez said. “But yesterday he threw well. At 200 feet, watching him throw the way he did, he said he felt no issues and felt good.”
Lester’s return also gives the Nationals an opportunity to reconfigure their rotation order. Joe Ross will start Saturday afternoon against the Marlins, with Max Scherzer on the mound for Sunday’s series finale. That means Joe Ross likely will be pushed back to Tuesday’s series opener against the Braves.
Though Ross arguably has been the club’s second-best starter this month behind Scherzer, Martinez has been saying for a while they want to try to find ways to reduce the right-hander’s workload after he opted out of the 2020 season. If he indeed starts Tuesday, Ross would be working on nine days’ rest.