- - Monday, May 21, 2018

It had been just over six years since a teenager for the Washington Nationals hit his first career home run at Nationals Park.

Bryce Harper went deep on May 14, 2012 against San Diego Padres pitcher and University of Richmond product Tim Stauffer in his 54th big league at-bat.

Just over six years later, Nationals left fielder Juan Soto, 19, performed with distinction Monday night by slamming a three-run shot to left field in the bottom of the second inning in 10-2 thrashing of the last-place San Diego Padres. That came in just his second big-league trip to the plate.

“He’s a special player,” Harper said of Soto. “We’ve seen that in the minor leagues.”

And a crowd of 27,890 fans saw it Monday, resulting in a curtain call after the Soto homer.

“I think it was Taylor,” Soto said of center fielder Michael A. Taylor, who told him to take a bow. He said “Go ahead, go ahead.”

It was the first career hit and first three RBI for the lefty swinging Soto, who struck out as a pinch hitter in his first big league at-bat Sunday against the Dodgers. Soto ended Monday 2-for-4 with a groundout and lineout while starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez (5-2) allowed just two runs in seven innings and has a 2.38 ERA this season.

“That was awesome,” Gonzalez said. “It was nice to see him do that. It was fun to see him go out there. It was what you wanted to see him do in his first at-bat.”

Soto gave Dave Martinez a hug before the game, after earlier in the day the manager sent a text to the minor league phenom letting him know he would start against Padres lefty Robbie Erlin.

That was a big favor, as Erlin allowed six runs in four innings and now has 15.92 ERA in his career at Nationals Park.

“I was really nervous,” Soto said.

But the Dominican slugger became just the fourth Nationals player to hit a home run for his first big league hit, joining former University of Maryland star Justin Maxwell, pitcher Tommy Milone and Corey Brown.

“He has unbelievable poise,” Martinez said. “He is really, really a student of the game.”

What was the message from Martinez to Soto once he got to the park?

“Just go out there and have fun,” Martinez said.

Soto did just that, and so did his teammates. The Nationals (25-21) were aided by first baseman and University of Virginia product Mark Reynolds, who smashed two homers and had three hits, and shortstop Trea Turner, who had a pair of doubles and two RBI.

Not to be outdone, Harper (2-for-4), another left-handed swinger, went the other way with a solo home run in the fifth. That was his 14th homer of the season – the same number Soto hit in the minors this spring.

Soto turns 20 in October, the same month Harper turns 26.

And if Harper leaves Washington for free agency after this season, Soto and outfield prospect Victor Robles – who is out with an injury – could help fill the void.

For now, the Nationals are without injured first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, second baseman Daniel Murphy, catcher Matt Wieters, and outfielders Adam Eaton, Brian Goodwin and Howie Kendrick, who is out for the season after injuring his Achilles on Saturday.

Martinez said Zimmerman (right oblique strain), who went on the disabled list May 12, will most likely take part in minor league rehab games “fairly soon” before returning to the Nationals.

Another concern is the bullpen, which entered Monday with a 4.72 ERA – the next-to-worst mark in the league.

Before the game the Nationals called up veteran lefty reliever Tim Collins from Triple-A Syracuse, who pitched a scoreless eighth inning. He last pitched in the majors for the Kansas City Royals in the 2014 World Series, then endured a pair of Tommy John surgeries and did not pitch in 2015 and 2016.

“I’m just going to do what they ask me to do,” Collins said.

The series continues Tuesday at 7:05 p.m. with Washington right-hander Jeremy Hellickson (1-0, 2.20) facing lefty Eric Lauer (1-2, 8.14) of the Padres, who are 20-29.

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