WASHINGTON -- Juan Soto was in a red top and back on the bench in the home dugout Saturday at Nationals Park.
The Nationals gathered to play a simulated game since their three-game series with the Miami Marlins was postponed because of a coronavirus outbreak within the Miami organization. Soto was a lead participant during the almost-two hours on the field.
He had been away from the team for 10 days after he tested positive for coronavirus July 21 and learned of the result July 23, hours before the season opener. Soto was cleared Wednesday by Major League Baseball to rejoin the team. He needed to finish a 10-day quarantine period mandated by the city of Washington before he could return to the field. That ended Saturday.
Manager Davey Martinez said Soto was asymptomatic throughout his quarantine stay. It was the second quarantine period for Soto since Major League Baseball restarted the 2020 season with intake testing July 1. He was originally placed in quarantine because he came in contact with someone who tested positive for coronavirus.
“He showed up here to play baseball and he had two stints where he had to sit in his apartment and do absolutely nothing,” Martinez said. “That is frustrating. Like I told him, let’s put this all behind us and let’s get your ready to play and help us win ballgames.”
The second process turned into a saga. Muddled or misinformed reports made Soto’s timeline for a return appear to be wrongfully stalled. Instead, he returned to the team as soon as possible under league and local protocols, though he doesn’t think he should have been quarantined in the first place.
“For me, in my mind, I think it was a [false] positive,” Soto said. “I’ve been working on it. I tested a bunch of times negative. Following the rules, being in the right spot. I think that’s why I think it’s a [false] positive because I’ve been following the rules. I’ve been really serious with this. It’s out there. But, for me, they can look at me however they want. I’m going to be the same guy.”
The process to get back on the field following a positive test is multi-layered. First, a player needs to have two negative tests more than 24 hours apart processed by a lab Major League Baseball lab. He needs to be fever-free for 72 hours without the use of medicine. He needs to complete at least one antibody test. Immediate rapid-result -- or “instant” -- tests following a positive result from MLB are just markers. They do not influence the pace for a return to play.
Next, the player needs to be checked by a team physician for possible cardiac problems and overall clearance. That’s the baseball side.
Once finished with the league protocols, a player is then beholden to CDC guidelines and local regulations as laid out in the waiver agreement between the Nationals and the city. Soto is now past all those hurdles.
Saturday, he took several at-bats during the Nationals’ simulated game, kicking sand in the batter’s box and generally enjoying himself. He homered to left field against Kyle McGowin. Soto held his arm in the air when rounding first, then joked with Trea Turner and Howie Kendrick -- who were sitting in the front row of the stands watching -- when he crossed the plate. Earlier, Soto ground out against Sean Doolittle. It would have been the third out in a regular inning. Instead, Doolittle needed to throw more pitches.
So, Soto turned back from first base, ran to recover his bat, then jumped into the batter’s box with two feet. He doubled to left-center field on the second pitch.
His return provides a dual boost: he’s bubbly in an otherwise low-vibe season of empty stands and pandemic concerns. He’s also the team’s best hitter.
The Nationals went 3-4 without Soto in the lineup during the first week. They are tied for 24th in runs scored entering Saturday.
A two-game series with the Mets begins Tuesday. Will Soto be on the field? It seems likely, though Martinez slow-played the idea Saturday.
“We’ll see how he feels [Sunday],” Martinez said. “He hasn’t been able to get out on the field and do anything. We got to get him back [going]. His legs are feeling a little sluggish.”
At the least, he has an opportunity to be back in the lineup. That’s the most significant step.
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