Juan Soto and Howie Kendrick found pictures of themselves and a “Welcome back” message waiting in the home clubhouse at Nationals Park when they finally joined the World Series champions for “summer camp” and played in an intrasquad scrimmage Thursday night.
“I just feel back at home, back with my team,” said Soto, adding that it was uncomfortable to be stuck at home — an apartment he called too small to swing a bat — while seeing everyone else around the majors getting ready for the season for almost two full weeks.
“It was tough for me, because I wanted to be back so bad,” he said. “But I got through all that, and now we're back.”
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While the Nationals never explicitly announced why Soto and Kendrick were absent for the ramp-up, there is a city rule mandating that anyone coming into contact with someone who had the coronavirus needed to self-quarantine for 14 days.
Pitcher Luis Garcia also was back with the team Thursday. Still missing from the Nationals, though: starting center fielder Victor Robles.
As for the clubhouse greeting, manager Dave Martinez said, “I literally had them put their pictures up on a TV screen that says ‘Welcome back.' ... I want them to feel welcome and I want the guys to know: Hey, they're coming to join us to play these games through these difficult times in life, and they're ready.”
Kendrick, an infielder and possible DH who was the MVP of Washington's NL Championship Series sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals last season, and Soto, the starting left fielder and breakout star of the team's run to the 2019 World Series title, each went to the plate in each inning Thursday in a bid to try to make up for lost at-bats. Both wound up with six plate appearances.
“It was nice to see the middle of my lineup out there,” Martinez said with a chuckle.
Kendrick was in the No. 3 spot in the top half of innings Thursday; he singled off lefty starter Patrick Corbin in the first.
Soto was in the No. 2 hole in the bottom half, lining a single over leaping shortstop Trea Turner's outstretched glove in the second against righty reliever Ryne Harper. Soto played four innings in the field.
“Right now, my swing feels really good,” the left-handed hitter said after going 1 for 5 with a walk. “I was seeing the ball really well today.”
Soto, who had 34 homers and 110 RBIs last year, said the biggest hurdle to the short amount of preparation time before opening day against the New York Yankees July 23 is getting is body strong and loose.
“I talked to both of them. I told them that we're going to have to push it a little bit, but you're going to have to be honest with me and tell me where you feel you're at. We'll try to get you as many at-bats as we can the next four or five days,” Martinez said.
“We'll see how they feel tomorrow and we'll go from there.”