With a pair of mid-afternoon transactions today, the Nats moved closer to full strength. They’re still missing Stephen Strasburg and Wander Suero, but for now, this is a significant step in the right direction.
Soto, of course, is the biggest addition. The star slugger was activated off the 10-day injured list in time for tonight’s series opener against the Braves, but there’s an important caveat: He will be restricted to pinch-hitting duties for now until his left shoulder has healed enough to allow him to make necessary throws in a game.
“He’s been hitting the ball well,” manager Davey Martinez said during his pregame Zoom session with reporters. “The throwing is still a little bit of a concern. So for today, we’re going to use him as a pinch-hitter and then we’ll keep building him up. He’s still doing his throwing program and we’ll see how he feels in the next couple of days.”
Soto, who went on the IL on April 20 with a left shoulder strain, has not yet attempted to make throws from right field to bases. Martinez said they hope to run him through that test before Wednesday’s game.
Given the fact the Nationals will need a designated hitter this weekend against the Yankees, it appears Soto won’t be used in the field until next week at the earliest.
“I talked to him. He wants to be here. He wants to contribute in any way possible,” Martinez said. “To have him as a threat on the bench and plop him into situations where it could be a big moment is huge for our club. ... I don’t know, it could be a day, it could be two days, it could be three days before he’s out there playing right field. But I do know we’ve got these three games, and then we go play the Yankees, which we’ll have a DH. So that helps out a lot.”
The Nationals managed to go 7-3 with Soto on the IL, a testament to the job Yadiel Hernandez in his place in right field. The 33-year-old rookie, batting .367 (11-for-30) with a .944 OPS, played so well he’ll remaining on the big league roster for the foreseeable future. The club will keep two left-handed backup outfielders (Hernandez and Andrew Stevenson) and instead chose to designate veteran utility man Hernán Pérez for assignment.
“He played his way into continuing to be here, and continuing to play,” said Martinez, who again has Hernandez batting second tonight. “He’s been a huge addition for us this year and filled a really big role in our lineup. Good for him. He’s been through a lot to get to the big leagues, and he’s taking full advantage of it.”
Harris, meanwhile, is finally ready to make his 2021 debut after a strange and frustrating spring that included several ultimately incorrect diagnoses for swelling he was experiencing in his pitching hand. A doctor in West Palm Beach, Fla., initially diagnosed Harris as having a blood clot in his right arm. He was sent to a specialist in St. Louis who for a time believed the 36-year-old reliever had thoracic outlet syndrome, a serious ailment that has derailed several pitchers’ careers.
But the clot and thoracic outlet syndrome eventually were ruled out, and though there never was a firm diagnosis for Harris’ occasional hand swelling, he is not in any danger pitching, so he’s been cleared to return.
“When I’m pitching, I’m not worried about it,” he said. “And when I told Davey the other day when we were talking about possibly getting activated, I tried to make it as clear as I could to him that I didn’t want to be on the roster with an asterisk next to my name. I wanted to be here, and I’m ready to contribute in ways that I have my whole career. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t say that I was ready.”
The Nationals have already reaped the benefits of a deep bullpen that has performed well, so Harris’ return is a boon for them. Martinez also will have the luxury of not needing to put the veteran on the mound too often because of the other reliable options he already has available to him.
“He’s been really good throughout this whole process, and really staying positive,” the manager said. “But we’re going to make sure that 1) he’s ready every day, and 2) if he does need a day, he gets a day or two days. I’m excited that he’s back.”
To clear a spot for Harris in their bullpen, the Nationals optioned Kyle McGowin to Triple-A Rochester.