Juan Soto turned the corner Sunday at third with the same expectation of everyone who sees Bobby Henley standing in the vicinity of the third base coach's box: I'm going to be sent.
Instead, Henley extended two arms, signaling Soto to stop. He did, abruptly, momentum roaring toward home plate and a three-run lead in Citi Field, where it's fair to be nervous about a Nationals lead even once the game is over. Soto instantly looked irritated. Something was wrong. He lifted his damaged right leg, hopped around, was tagged out. Afterward, he spiked his helmet with his right hand.
Soto walked down the dugout stairs, still displeased, but at least walking. Victor Robles replaced Soto to start the bottom of the seventh inning. The question became, "What's next?" At the least, Washington has a significant short-term problem.
The Nationals announced Soto's injury as a mild sprain of his ankle. X-rays were negative. He's day-to-day and will be further examined back in Washington on Monday. Without him, the Nationals will use the alignment they deployed Sunday following the injury: Gerardo Parra in left, Victor Robles in center and Adam Eaton in right field. Outfielder Andrew Stevenson -- fast and skilled defensively -- remains on the roster as further coverage. Of course, none of those options is Soto.
He's just 20 years old still, a fact that is mentioned less frequently with each passing day because his sustained performance makes it hard to believe (though it's true, for all the Atlanta announcers out there). He terrorized the Mets through the Nationals' failing weekend in Flushing. Soto was 5-for-10 with two walks and three home runs in two-plus games before the injury. It's Anthony Rendon, Soto and everyone else in the Nationals' lineup. Remove either to watch it thin considerably.
Also absent are Howie Kendrick and Ryan Zimmerman. Treating Parra as a starter further pilfers Davey Martinez's bench, which quickly dissolved after briefly returning to full strength following Zimmerman's return. Soto's cloudy future will hamper Martinez in the short-term no matter what further tests show. He'll either end up with an unusable roster spot if Soto just needs a few days to heal without going on the injured list or an extended gap if he starts a 10-day run of being unavailable.
Without Soto, the lineup turns from productive to unclear where the core of production will come from. Simply bumping everyone up provides a clear ding to the prior length the lineup operates with. Trea Turner, Eaton and Rendon remain intact. Soto, the cleanup hitter, is extracted. Matt Adams could work in that spot to have left-handed bats framing Rendon. Kurt Suzuki has been there previously this season. The options are limited and unsexy.
And the lineup hole comes at a crucial time. Washington ran out of Citi Field hoping never to return following another wrenching series loss to the Mets in their home park. Sunday presented a salvage day thanks to a 7-4 win. The Nationals are a game in front of Milwaukee and just a half-game in front of St. Louis in the wild-card standings. The Mets are lurking 1 1/2 games behind the Nationals.
One thing to know about Soto is this: when struck by a pitch on the outside of his wrist earlier this year, he quickly had a bruise and no change in temperament. Asked if he was playing the next day, he said, "yes" as quickly as someone asked if they want free ice cream. Martinez says he often asks Soto if he wants a break, and is told no, presumably with the same simplicity. Here, his brain may be telling him the same thing. But this time, his injury may not cooperate.
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