Juan Soto didn’t quite know what to expect when he stepped up to bat in the bottom of the eighth Tuesday night at Nationals Park. In his first game appearance in 15 days, the young slugger was about to find out just how difficult it is to pinch-hit in the major leagues. But first, he was about to find out just how much Nationals fans missed him while he was on the injured list with a strained left shoulder.
“I didn’t know the crowd was going to get me so pumped, that they were going to get so happy,” Soto said during a Zoom session with reporters of the loud and sustained ovation he received from the crowd of 8,156. “I never knew about it. I just got real excited and was laughing at myself. My heart was going a little bit quicker. But it feels really nice to be out there again.”
Activated off the 10-day injured list Tuesday, Soto was back to work, but only in part. Because he has yet to fully test his strained left shoulder with throws from the outfield, he’s restricted for now only to hitting. That meant one pinch-hitting assignment for the Nats’ series opener against the Braves - he struck out on a 97 mph fastball from Atlanta lefty Tyler Matzek - and it could mean the same for each of the next two games.
It’s actually a difficult assignment. Soto, for all his prowess at the plate, had only pinch-hit four previous times in his career, all as a rookie in 2018. He homered in one of the at-bats but made outs in the other three, including a strikeout in his first plate appearance in the big leagues.
“I just remember my debut was as a pinch-hitter, and it went the same way: strikeout,” he said. “I didn’t realize how tough it is for those guys. They come in from the bench. It looks easy, but it’s not that easy to just hit a couple balls in the cage and then come out and face a guy with 97-98. It’s kind of tough, so I’ve got my respect for those guys. I’m just going to try it these last couple days.”
It appears that’s all Soto will do during this series. When the Nationals head to New York this weekend for an interleague series against the Yankees, he will probably serve as DH.
All the while, Soto will be working on throws from the outfield, hoping he can reach a point soon where he can throw to all bases with little concern for injury.
“I don’t think it’s going to be anything I’ve got to worry about for the future,” he said. “I’ve got to just keep working hard and work on that specific part (of the shoulder), because they say everything else looks strong and is ready to go. So my whole shoulder is ready to go. It’s just a little part; I’ve got to give a little more work on that part.”
The Nationals certainly missed Soto’s presence in the lineup on Tuesday while losing 6-1 to the Braves. But they performed admirably in his absence, going 7-3 despite the loss of their star right fielder.
“It was kind of tough for me, because I know I can swing the bat,” he said of the experience of watching games on TV since he couldn’t travel. “And we don’t have any DH that I can help my team. It was really tough to see all those games from home. It feels the same like quarantine last year. But I really tried to keep mentally strong and cheer for them. And they had a really good series. I’m happy for them, and I’m happy to join the team when they’re going really well.”