Soto’s return to right field lengthens Nationals lineup

Somewhere between Yankee Stadium’s unique configuration and Juan Soto’s eagerness to return to the outfield, Nationals manager Davey Martinez thinks he’s seen enough progress from Soto’s strained left shoulder to put the slugger back in right field for today’s matinee against the Yankees.

Soto, who served as the designated hitter Friday night and contributed a two-run homer in the ninth inning of the Nats’ 6-2 victory, passed the final hurdle before Friday’s game by showing he could throw without issue.

Thumbnail image for Soto-Catch-Blue-sidebar.jpg“He threw to the bases yesterday and it’s based on our conversation last night,” Martinez said this morning in his pregame Zoom session with reporters. “He said he felt good after he threw. ... He came in last night and said he felt like he’s good to go and he’s going to get a chance to play right field.”

The Nationals’ visit to Yankee Stadium played a role, too, in hastening Soto’s return to the green. But Martinez still wants Soto to use caution during his first game on defense since April 19, the day before he was placed on the injured list.

“Right field is very short here,” Martinez said. “But we told him, I want him to play the game the way he normally plays, but with caution. We talked to him yesterday about getting to the balls as quick as possible and just coming up and hitting the cutoff man. A lot of times, if you do that anyway, you put the pressure on the third base coach. You get to the ball quick and he’s got to hold the runner. Being in right field and being so short, we want him to get to the ball as quick as possible and get it in as quick as possible.”

Adding a feared slugger to the middle of the lineup is a boost for a Nationals team that had scored just nine runs in four games before Friday night. But Soto’s return to right field benefits the Nats by allowing both Ryan Zimmerman and Josh Bell to play at the same time in an American League park. Zimmerman is at first base today and Bell is the DH.

“Zim’s swinging the bat well and it gives us a little bit more length in our lineup, so I kinda like it,” Martinez said. “But like I said, it was based on how Juan felt and he said he felt good.”

Martinez has struggled to both get Bell’s bat going and keep Zimmerman’s sizzling stick sharp despite limited playing time.

Bell homered Friday night and has two longballs in his past six games, driving in seven runs in that span. But he’s still slashing just .145/.221/.319 for the season. Zimmerman is slashing .314/.352/.588 this season, but he’s just 2-for-10 in May.

Martinez is eager to see how Soto does in right field, but wouldn’t commit to keeping him there past today’s game.

“We’ll see how the game goes for him today,” the manager said. “It doesn’t mean (he’ll play right field tomorrow). ... We can DH him tomorrow if we need to, but it’s good to get him back in the field.”

* Right-hander Will Harris, who worked the ninth inning Friday night, threw mostly cutters while allowing one run on one hit and a walk, striking out one. He threw 17 pitches, nine for strikes.

It was only Harris’ second appearance since being activated off the IL with what has been classified as right hand inflammation.

“He wanted to throw his cutter. .. He threw one curveball,” Martinez said. “But he’s working on his cutter and getting the ball where he wants to throw it. I thought he threw the ball well yesterday.”

A six-run eighth inning turned a 3-3 tie into a rout for the Nats, giving Martinez an opportunity to let Harris and righty Tanner Rainey, who worked a scoreless eighth with a walk and three strikeouts, get some action in a less pressurized situation

“We want to get (Harris) in and get some work, the same thing with Rainey,” Martinez said. “We want him to get some work. Rainey’s available today. Will probably won’t be available today. I’ll talk to him, but he hasn’t gone back-to-back yet and it’s something we need to build on with him.”

* Righty Stephen Strasburg, on the IL with right shoulder inflammation, threw a bullpen session Saturday morning and remains on schedule for a simulated game on Tuesday at Nationals Park.

Martinez said Strasburg threw 35-40 pitches at Yankee Stadium. If all goes well, he’ll get up and down three times and throw about 50 pitches in the simulated game.

“I’m waiting to hear back from (pitching coach Jim) Hickey to see how it went, and we’ll go from there,” Martinez said.

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