Juan Soto is already making plays in his first game of 2020 season.
A familiar and welcome sight was prowling left field in Nationals Park on Wednesday: the imposing figure of 21-year-old baseball superstar Juan Soto, making his season debut for the defending World Series champion Washington Nationals.
The Nationals welcomed Soto back to the lineup on Wednesday for their game against the New York Mets after he missed the first eight of the season. He didn’t take long to make his presence felt, either. In the first inning, with the Nationals trailing 1-0, Soto took a 2-2 changeup from Mets starter Rick Porcello down the left-field line for a double to drive in Adam Eaton with the tying run.
Then, leading off the top of the second, Mets rookie Andres Gimenez hit a sinking liner to left off Erick Fedde, who replaced starter Max Scherzer after one inning. Soto made a full stretch and fell flat on his stomach, losing his hat and sunglasses in the process, but came up with the ball for his first highlight-reel moment of the season.
Soto was expected to be in left field on Opening Day two weeks ago, but he and the Nationals were dealt devastating news the morning of the game: He had tested positive for COVID-19. Soto subsequently tested negative at least six times in the next few days and believes he was a victim of a false positive. He was cleared to return by MLB last Wednesday, but not by the D.C. Department of Health. He was finally activated on Tuesday but was not in the starting lineup and didn’t appear in the game.
Juan Soto’s return couldn’t come soon enough for the Nationals.
Manager Dave Martinez has penciled in four different players — Andrew Stevenson, Michael A. Taylor, Emilio Bonifacio and Josh Harrison — in left field over their first eight games to replace Soto. They’re a combined 3-29 (.103 AVG) with a .570 OPS — 379 points below Soto’s total from 2019 — this season.
Soto is entering his third full season in the big leagues but is still just 21 years old. Last year as a 20-year-old he hit 34 home runs and drove in 110; only Alex Rodriguez and Mel Ott ever reached those totals before turning 21. Ott is the only player with more career home runs and RBI than Soto through their age-20 season, and only four players — Rodriguez, Ott, Mike Trout and Ty Cobb — have a higher Offensive WAR. Since his debut in 2018, only Christian Yelich, Nolan Arenado and former teammate Anthony Rendon have a higher OPS in the National League.
Soto was a postseason hero for the Nationals last October to lead the club to its first world championship in franchise history. His home run and three RBI off Gerrit Cole in Game 1 of the World Series helped the Nationals defeat the Houston Astros in Game 1 in Houston on their way to winning the series in seven games. He became the youngest player in history to hit three home runs in a single World Series.
The Nationals were forced to play the first two weeks of the season without him. But Soto is back now and already making plays, a key addition to a club looking to defend the title it won a year ago.