Following Anthony Rendon’s departure in free agency last winter, the Nationals were left with one star hitter to anchor the middle of their lineup in 2020. Juan Soto is still just 21 years old but oozes both talent and swagger, leaving little doubt as to his ability to handle the pressure.
However, as qualified as Soto might be to handle the job, any time missed by the young outfielder is going to hurt the Washington offense more than it has in years past. And the Nationals have been tested with exactly that right out of the gate. Soto tested positive for COVID-19 just hours before his club hosted the New York Yankees on Opening Night, forcing the team to play the series without him.
“He’s a great player, and the fans want to see him and he affects our lineup,” Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said Thursday. “We don’t have as good a chance to be a great team like a New York Yankees as if we had him. But what can you do about it? You’ve got to move on and you’ve got to play ball. They’re going to play this game tonight with or without Juan Soto.”
Though the biggest takeaway of the weekend was that no other Nationals tested positive for the virus, baseball was still played and Washington got off to a 1-2 start to its season that really could’ve been 2-1 had the offense been at full strength.
The Nationals could’ve used Soto in their first game, when they fell 4-1 in a rain-shortened affair—though it might not have made a difference given how much Gerrit Cole dominated for most of the evening. They didn’t need him Saturday as they chased James Paxton early and tacked on some late runs to even the series with a 9-2 win.
It was the third game where Soto’s presence was missed. Washington’s first test of its new-look bullpen didn’t go well. The newly acquired Will Harris gave up a solo home run to first baseman Luke Voit in the seventh and Sean Doolittle allowed another run to score an inning later, turning a 2-1 lead into a 3-2 deficit after Patrick Corbin twirled a gem for most of the afternoon.
The Yankees sent reliever Tommy Kahnle to the mound to handle the bottom of the eighth. He struck out Michael Taylor before a Gleyber Torres throwing error and Adam Eaton double put runners on second and third with one out. That brought up Starlin Castro, signed last offseason to play second base and hit third in the lineup. He got ahead 2-0 before Kahnle threw three straight changeups to strike him out.
“I know Starlin, I’ve known him for a long time,” Martinez said after the game. “He’s going to hit there’s no doubt about it. He always has. It’s just one at-bat, I don’t want him to get riled up about one at-bat. I know he’s frustrated he couldn’t drive in those runs but he’s going to have the same opportunities here many, many times. When he’s really good, he uses the whole field. He got a double earlier today down the rightfield line so that’s who he is.”
Castro’s strikeout wouldn’t have been so costly if Soto had been hitting behind him. Instead, it was Howie Kendrick, who was intentionally walked to load the bases and bring up another offseason addition in Eric Thames. The first baseman struck out on four pitches to end the threat.
Though he drove in a run earlier in the game, Thames didn’t blame the Yankees for walking Kendrick and admitted to “not really seeing the ball well right now” after a training camp that only lasted three weeks.
The Nationals had another rally quelled in the ninth when Emilio Bonifacio was thrown out trying to steal third, but the back-to-back strikeouts in the eighth were what really ended their hopes for a comeback. The heart of their lineup wasn’t going to get another chance to come to the plate and the Yankees had closer Zack Britton—one of the best relievers in baseball—set to handle the ninth.
With the Yankees series now behind them, the Nationals will still need to compensate for Soto’s absence for at least another few games. As of Sunday morning, Soto had yet to receive the results of any MLB-administered coronavirus test he took after finding out about his original positive result. He will need to test negative on consecutive tests taken at least 24 hours apart while continuing to display no symptoms before he can be cleared to play.
The Nationals’ next 19 games all come against the Toronto Blue Jays, Miami Marlins, Baltimore Orioles and New York Mets—much easier tests than the Yankees provided. But regardless of opponent, the Nationals are down their best star hitter in a year when they really only have one on the team. Until Soto returns, they’re going to have to hope that production comes from unexpected places.
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