Juan Soto’s return to right field in Saturday’s 4-3 11-inning loss to the Yankees was a boost to a Nationals club whose offense has struggled to score runs while the slugger was sidelined with a left shoulder strain.
Even though Soto has been available as a pinch-hitter for a few days and served as the designated hitter in Friday’s win at Yankee Stadium, the Nats need to count on him for four or five good at-bats during every game. Instead, while he rounded into defensive form, they had to pick and choose an at-bat a game for him to do some damage.
But Soto’s return also means that 32-year-old rookie Yadiel Hernandez, who was pressed into service as his replacement in right field, returns to the bench. And that must be a tough pill to swallow for a guy who has slashed .302/.367/.395 this season in his most extensive major league action to date.
“He’s doing everything we’ve asked him to do and he’s been a lot of fun,” manager Davey Martinez said Saturday in his pregame Zoom session with reporters. “This guy, for the most part, has given us good at-bats since he’s been here. Now he’s going to have to do the same thing as a pinch-hitter. I think he’s going to be really good at it. He works good at-bats.”
Hernandez has been so successful this season - albeit in a small sample size - that he kept his 26-man roster spot when Soto was activated from the injured list on Tuesday. The Nationals instead cut ties with veteran utility man Hernán Pérez, who was just 1-for-19 after winning a spot on the opening day roster. Pérez has since signed a minor league deal with the Brewers, one of his former clubs.
Martinez has always been enamored of Hernandez’s approach at the plate and the thought that a guy who slugged 63 homers in three minor league seasons in the Nats system could run into a pitch and do some damage.
But this season, Hernandez, who made the opening day roster when an outbreak of COVID-19 spread through the team, has been mostly patient in his at-bats, working deep into counts and slashing .291/.328/.473 when he faces a right-handed starter.
Over the past few games before Soto’s return, however, Hernandez was seeing more and more breaking pitches and seemed to forget his patient, measured approach.
“We noticed that he was getting a little jumpy, a little antsy,” Martinez said. “I think that comes from trying to do a little too much. (On Friday), we told him to slow down a little bit and he got a big hit for us in the eighth inning to get us going.”
Hernandez will have to make adjustments as his playing time becomes more sporadic. While he’s succeeded when pressed into action as a starter, he needs to remain ready, stay focused and be able to produce whenever he’s called upon as a pinch-hitter or if he enters a game as part of a double-switch.
Though his career spans only 77 plate appearances, Hernandez has produced when called on as a substitute or asked to pinch-hit. In 11 plate appearances as a pinch-hitter in his brief career, he’s slashed .300/.364/.500 with two doubles and an RBI. The numbers aren’t otherworldly, but the Nats like the notion that the player who slashed .324/.449/.487 in six seasons in the Cuban National Series can be productive in a pinch.
Opposing pitchers’ approaches against him might change, too - and the need to get ahead of a savvy hitter late in a game could result in Hernandez seeing more meaty fastballs as opposed to the breaking balls that seem to give him more trouble.
“As a pinch-hitter, you want to be aggressive. The first two pitches are probably going to be the best pitches to hit,” Martinez said. “You also want them to understand that, hey, you’re coming up in a big moment, so you might get a curveball first pitch for a strike, or a slider, or he might throw you a changeup. So you gotta be aware.”
But Martinez thinks Hernandez can flourish off the bench, even if he only gets a single shot to do some damage.
“You get one at-bat (and) you make the best of it,” the manager said. “You want to be aggressive. ... Don’t just sit there and work counts when you’re coming up in a situation. Be aggressive. You can either start a big inning for us or to drive in runs for us in a big moment.”