After a two-week layoff while his left shoulder healed, it was only natural to believe Juan Soto would need some time to rediscover his swing. Even though the Nationals slugger had been able to take batting practice while on the 10-day injured list, it’s not the same as facing live pitchers. So it was going to take some time to get right again once he was activated last week.
“It just took me three at-bats as a pinch-hitter,” Soto said Sunday evening in a Zoom session with reporters. “Since I took all those three at-bats, I feel great. Last time I pinch-hit, I hit the ball real hard. After that, I just feel my timing’s back and ready to go.”
Those three pinch-hit at-bats came last Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday against the Braves. Not cleared yet at that point to play the outfield, Soto was restricted to bench duties, but manager Davey Martinez made sure he got one at-bat in each game. The results weren’t great - Soto went 0-for-3 with a strikeout - but his lineout to the left field corner late in Thursday’s loss convinced the 22-year-old he was back.
And when he singled and then homered in Friday night’s series opener at Yankee Stadium while serving as the Nats’ designated hitter, Soto indeed looked like he was back for good.
It’s not quite that simple, though, not even for perhaps the best hitter in baseball.
The rest of Soto’s weekend, just as it was for the entire Nationals lineup, was a struggle. He went 0-for-3 with two walks during Saturday’s 11-inning loss, then went 0-for-4 during Sunday’s 3-2 loss to New York.
Put it all together, and the young superstar is 2-for-15 with two walks and three strikeouts since coming off the IL. His batting average has plummeted from .300 to .262, his OPS from .870 to .803. This is not what the Nats had in mind when they activated him.
“Just got to keep swinging,” Soto said when asked how he can find consistency at the plate again. “I have my swing right on it, my timing right on it. I’ve just got to find a way to square the ball up and try to find the gaps. I hit the ball really well today twice. I just couldn’t find a hole. Just keep swinging and try to give it my best.”
He’s probably right, and sooner rather than later Soto is going to return to his usual phenomenal form. But at a time when the Nationals lineup as a whole is struggling so much, his return hasn’t made the kind of positive difference everyone hoped it would.
“We missed having Soto in that lineup, and strengthening that lineup all the way through,” manager Davey Martinez said following Friday night’s 11-4 win. “Him in that lineup makes a big difference. Hopefully, this is the beginning of something good here for a stretch, and we’ll take off.”
It hasn’t happened that way yet, though, and Soto could be excused if he’s feeling some pressure to lift his teammates out of their offensive doldrums all by himself.
“Not at all,” he insisted when asked if that was the case. “I know everybody wants to do their job. I know everybody’s trying hard, trying to do their best. I’m trying to do my best all the time. It’s tough sometimes, we hit the ball hard and it doesn’t find the spot. Sometimes we don’t hit the ball well. It just happens. It’s really tough for me and for the team. We as a team feel bad about it. But personally, I’ve just got to keep grinding. I just try to forget about it and keep grinding, personally and as a team.”
The question now is whether Soto will be able to contribute to the lineup on a daily basis.
He wound up playing right field only once this weekend against the Yankees (Saturday) while serving as DH the other two games in the interleague series. With no more games in an American League park scheduled for this month, the Nationals can only start Soto in the field or stick him on their bench and hope to find a good pinch-hitting spot for him late.
Soto didn’t need to test his shoulder out much during Saturday’s game. He should find himself in right field for Tuesday’s homestand opener against the Phillies, but can he keep himself there all week?
“I felt really well throwing yesterday,” he said. “They just wanted me to keep working on it, keep getting better and better every day. But I feel well. I think we’re going to see how I feel after the off-day and take the decision from there to see if I can play every day.”