- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 5, 2020

A slider fired past Juan Soto, and on cue, the 21-year-old slugger squatted, twirled his hips and swept his feet through the batter’s box. After nearly two weeks away from baseball because of a positive coronavirus test, Soto was back. So, too, was his signature Soto shuffle.

Despite the return, Soto’s season debut — flair and all — wasn’t enough as Washington lost 3-1 to the New York Mets.

The problem? Ace Max Scherzer was pulled after just one inning with a right hamstring injury. Speaking to reporters after the game, Scherzer called it “minor” and said he doesn’t anticipate missing his next start. But the Nationals couldn’t overcome it— nor did they have any answers for Mets starter Rick Porcello.

The Nationals’ three-game winning streak was snapped. But in an odd season, Washington (4-5) will take comfort in knowing Scherzer’s injury wasn’t serious.

“It was good news,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said.

Coming into Wednesday’s game, the Nationals knew there was a possibility Scherzer would have a short night. Scherzer said he tweaked his hamstring last week before a start against the Toronto Blue Jays, and when he was running sprints on Tuesday, he felt his leg flaring up. He felt good enough to pitch on Wednesday, though the Nationals also warmed up Erick Fedde just in case.

Scherzer clearly seemed off from the beginning. Making his third start of the year, Scherzer’s velocity on his fastball was between 92 and 94 miles per hour — down from the 96.5 mph he typically hits. With his speed not there, Scherzer’s command wasn’t sharp, as the three-time Cy Young winner walked his first batter and then gave up a single in the next at-bat. The Mets scored when Brandon Nimmo crossed the plate on a Dominic Smith sacrifice fly to left.

Scherzer said the tweak affected his ability to push off when pitching. The 36-year-old ace threw just 27 pitches — 14 of which were balls. He escaped from the inning, but his night was done.

“I didn’t injure it any further, there wasn’t anything worse,” Scherzer said. “That was just my limit for today. I wasn’t going to pitch past that limit. It wasn’t going to loosen up anymore by pitching, so that was kind of how I able to relay it to the training staff and my coaches as well.

“We just came to the conclusion that if I wasn’t going to be better than I was going to be in the first, then there was no reason to continue.”

Fedde, originally scheduled to start Friday for an injured Stephen Strasburg, replaced Scherzer to start the second. He was the start of six relievers used for the Nationals, some of whom performed better than others (including Wander Suero, who made his season debut in a scoreless sixth.)

In relief, Fedde lasted three innings, surrendering three hits, three walks and one run. Sean Doolittle, who has had a rough start to the season, was the other Nationals’ arm to surrender a score, giving up an RBI double to Smith off the wall in the seventh.

With Washington relying on its relievers to keep them in the game, the Nationals desperately needed their offense to generate runs. Entering Wednesday, Washington’s hitters, collectively, had the league’s fifth-best batting average (.253), which had helped them over a three-game win streak.

But facing Porcello, the Nationals couldn’t gain much traction — aside from Soto, who finished 2 for 4 and had an RBI double. That score came in Soto’s first at-bat, when the Dominican-born star smoked an 82.2 mph changeup to the opposite field. The ball rolled in the grass, bouncing not far from the left outfield seats where cardboard cutouts were placed to “watch” his return. Soto had requested the cutouts be placed there in order to feel like his family was in attendance.

After all, it had been a rough two weeks for Soto. He was scratched just prior to opening day when he was informed he tested positive for COVID-19. Soto now believes that was a false positive, telling reporters he strictly followed the league’s health and safety protocols and had three consecutive negative tests after his initial result. Soto was reinstated on Tuesday, and a day later, he was batting fourth.

Soto’s eagerness was also apparent. Early on, he made a diving catch in left field, a play that he said caused his wrist to hurt afterward. For his second at-bat, Soto ripped a single to right, but later in the inning, he was thrown at when charging for third.

“I’m happy to be back,” Soto said. “I’m happy to play this sport that I love to do. … If I’m in there, I’m going to give it 100%.”

The Nationals, though, had no answer for Porcello. The Mets’ veteran dominated through seven innings, retiring 10 straight batters before Seth Lugo took over for the eighth and ninth.

Washington’s last base runner came in the fourth, a single from Asdrúbal Cabrera. In total, the Nationals’ last 16 batters failed to reach base, their night ending on a Soto strikeout.

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